With the excitement of hopeful lottery players, folks in the past have swarmed the mountains and lowlands at word of supposed gold discoveries, or silver, or other metals, all of them precious in terms of financial value to the finder. But rushing to find radioactive materials — the stronger the better — in the Adirondacks? Really?
For the first four decades of the twentieth century, large mines at a few locations worldwide provided the bulk of uranium used in America. Discoveries of ore in Quebec and Ontario in the early 1900s caused speculation that deposits existed in the Adirondacks as well due to a shared geological history. In 1914, George Chadwick, professor of geology and mineralogy at St. Lawrence University, opined that “there’s no special reason” why radium-bearing rocks wouldn’t exist in the local mountains. Perhaps none had been found, he said, because no one had looked for them.
At the time, there were a few productive mining operations in the western United States, but the subject of uranium in the Adirondacks rarely surfaced. Radium was seldom mentioned in regional newspapers, except for occasional health articles about progress against certain cancers. Those advances were credited to world-changing discoveries made by Marie and Pierre Curie.
In the wake of Marie’s 1929 visit to the North Country, there were brief periods of interest in uranium mining when the possibility was raised that radioactive ores might be found in northern New York. In the early 1930s, deposits bearing what was believed to be marketable quantities of radium were found north of the St. Lawrence River. The Ogdensburg Journal reported that since the discovery, “The Canadian Bureau of Mines has been in close touch with Northern New York mine operators in anticipation of similar discoveries in this section.”
In 1935, brief excitement surrounded the revelation that radioactive rocks had been found during tunnel excavations near the summit of Whiteface Mountain. Allanite, within pegmatites in anorthosite (both are intrusive igneous rocks), was relatively rare, so there were no large deposits, but the find did lead to a notable discovery. The radioactive properties of allanite made it useful for “age-index” purposes, allowing researchers to calculate the age of the mountains.
In 1939, scientists in Vienna, using a uraninite specimen, pronounced the Adirondacks to be “1,200 million years old.” In 1942, after testing the allanite samples, professionals at the Smithsonian Institution arrived at the same conclusion, confirming that the Adirondacks were more than a billion years old. Based on the latest science, they were considered one of the oldest mountain ranges on earth, if not the oldest.
Experts in fields other than medicine were discovering less-benign uses for uranium and related substances. In 1938, a pair of Germans demonstrated nuclear fission. Others conducting follow-up research found that the fission of a single uranium atom could lead to a chain reaction. The resulting energy had potentially myriad uses for the betterment of mankind — but it was also realized that the chain reaction could be harnessed to create a bomb far more powerful than anything the world had ever seen.
At the urging of many, including famous pacifist Albert Einstein, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized a program of atomic research, which soon found itself in a race against a similar and very aggressive effort in Germany that threatened to help them conquer the world.
While the competing programs were highly secret, it was believed uranium was involved. Supporting evidence gradually surfaced via US import records, which revealed that in 1939, five pounds of uranium had been purchased from outside sources. In 1940, that number skyrocketed to 2.4 million pounds. But with the exception of 1942, the veil of secrecy remained intact. No other import records were published. Likewise, no information was released on domestic levels of uranium production.
Among America’s many wars and military actions since the year 1900, two stand out in terms of civilian participation: World Wars I and II. During other conflicts, the majority of citizens knew of them only through newspapers, radio broadcasts, or television news coverage. Otherwise, the daily living routines of most Americans were unaffected.
But during the World Wars, things were different. Citizen groups stood watch for enemy invaders by air or sea, and rationing programs controlled the distribution of coal, rubber, metals, gasoline, alcohol, and many food items, deeply affecting the daily lives of most folks across the nation. People didn’t just read about the war — they lived it by preserving and collecting metals and other items needed to support the effort overseas.
Involvement was important at all levels, and the Adirondacks were no exception. For example, in spring 1942, the Essex County Board of Supervisors voted to replace the county’s Defense Council (covering fire, medical, and several other critical services) with the Essex County War Board. After the war began, the federal government had offered, upon request, free surveys of strategic minerals in order to utilize the nation’s assets. Citing the presence of iron, titanium, uranium, zinc, and other ores in the region, the board urged an inspection of Essex County’s holdings.
But the focus in the North Country during World War II remained on substances already being mined, especially iron, produced here in tonnage sufficient for making everything from small firearms to strong linings that protected the nation’s warships. The bulk of uranium, aside from Canadian and European imports, came from mines in Arizona, Colorado, and Utah.
During the postwar years, America’s interest in uranium intensified. As horrific as were the results at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bombs dropped there were perceived as having ended the war. A buildup of such weaponry could ensure America’s future, protected by invincible firepower that could be wielded offensively, but was presented as a defensive program. Peaceful uses were touted as well, like improvements and cost reductions in producing electricity.
Thus it was that uranium was on everyone’s minds as an integral part of the nation’s future, and even in peacetime, citizen participation would play an important role. In 1948, joining the very popular category of chemistry sets for children was an atomic energy kit, “complete with samples of uranium ore and instructions on what to do with it.” The use of ore in the toy sets was licensed by the Atomic Energy Commission. Several companies introduced their own kits to remain competitive.
And the kids weren’t alone. Adult prospectors were purchasing Geiger counters and taking to the woods in search of the next mother lode. In spring 1948, as further inducement, the federal government began offering multiple rewards for uranium discoveries, including $10,000 ($105,000 in 2018) for any high-grade deposit of 20 tons or more assaying at 20 percent uranium oxide. A uranium value greater than gold sent thousands of professional and amateur prospectors afield with dreams of striking it rich.
In the North Country, the first big excitement generated by uranium hunters was rooted in fall 1948, when Joseph R. Linney found promising results while scouring the landscape in northern Clinton County.
J. R. (as he was widely known) was not your average citizen in search of riches. He was by far the most knowledgeable mining authority in the county, if not the entire upstate region, having worked first as a coal miner and then a coal-mining boss in Pennsylvania before accepting a transfer to a small iron-mining village nine miles west of Dannemora. There, at Lyon Mountain, he spent twenty-five years managing the works that produced the highest-grade iron ore in the world. Linney retired as mine superintendent in 1944, but remained a special consultant within the ranks of Republic Steel. As such, he was called upon to search for the next potential mining bonanza — uranium.
In early January 1949, after four months of field work, Linney confirmed that company technicians were assessing some promising finds. He had found iron deposits on Rand Hill, about eight miles northeast of Plattsburgh, and his Geiger counter had detected uranium as well. But Linney, loath to surrender trade secrets to competitors from other companies exploring the region for the same purposes, would only hint that it was located on or near Rand Hill.
While awaiting test results, he spoke expansively to reporters on the subjects of pitchblende, mining, and the region’s geologic history, noting that the age of the Adirondacks enhanced the likelihood that uraninite was present. That bit of information dovetailed nicely with encouraging news: technicians assaying a one-pound sample provided by Linney arrived at a value of $50. It seemed there was real potential in the ground, but more-detailed surveys eventually determined there were no deposits with the potential for commercial production.
Photos: headline, Plattsburgh Daily Republican (1935); headline, Fort Covington Sun (1942); Atomic Energy Lab, 1950 (Oak Ridge AU online museum); headline, Plattsburgh Press-Republican (1949)
A version of this article first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.