Note: This is the second in a two-part series on the Orphan Mine. Read the first part online at tucson.com/orphanmine.
Aptly named for its isolated location, the Orphan Mine claim was spread over 20.26 acres. The surface mine, owned by Western Gold and Uranium Inc., was limited to three acres. A sheer drop from the Grand Canyon rim made up another 15 acres, and the remaining two acres included the Grand Canyon Inn, a popular tourist destination.
The shaft, which reached a depth of 1,590 feet, was developed in 1959 at a cost of $800,000.
Federal subsidies offered by the Atomic Energy Commission’s procurement program doubled the value of ore mined at the Orphan, with the first ore load increasing from $44.50 to $83 per ton.
However, by spring 1961, the quality of ore declined and the company needed to access a higher grade of ore, extending from its claim into Grand Canyon National Park. The company noted the mining law of apex rights, allowing miners to follow ore discovered below the surface and enabling them to mine regardless of whether it trespassed onto another property owner’s land.
Western Gold and Uranium cited national security interests, the economic well-being of Northern Arizona, and the proposal of erecting an 18-story, 600-room hotel to be built at the Orphan site should their access to mine be denied.
Although the issue never went to court, a Congressional compromise, Public Law 87-457, enacted in May 1962 allowed the company to mine the disputed ore body in exchange for title to the Orphan claim after 25 years (1987).
The Orphan Mine faced many challenges, including a lack of a place on site or on Park Service property to place waste rock. Solutions involved using waste rock as backfill for underground stopes, trucking it out of the park, and selling it as road ballast to the Park Service.
Electrical power shortages proved inconvenient along with snowstorms that hindered truck transport. A major setback occurred when the ore bin collapsed in December 1961, damaging the headframe and forcing the layoff of 60 miners.
Despite the mine’s precarious topographic position, its operational safety record included only one fatality, which occurred offsite, and 56 injuries.
Maurice Castagne was a professional mining engineer whose past experience in hardrock gold mines served him well during his 11 years as mine superintendent and manager of the Orphan Mine. His mining crew usually consisted of between 25 and 50 men per project, though staffing numbers sometimes were as low as 9 or high as 102.
Castagne upgraded the mine facility by adding a 1,500-foot vertical three-compartment mine shaft, expanding underground mine development including ventilation and increasing daily production to 250 tons.
In 1966, the Tuba City uranium mill closed and the ore had to be shipped to Colorado for processing. That year the Orphan Mine was acquired by the Cotter Corp.
The Orphan Mine closed on April 25, 1969, due to a declining uranium price and excessive cost of shipping ore the 400 miles to Canon City, Colorado.
Since 1956 it produced 495,107 tons of ore containing 4.26 million pounds of uranium oxide U3O8 with an average grade of 0.42 percent. Byproduct minerals included 6.68 million pounds of copper, over 100,000 ounces of silver and 3,400 pounds of vanadium oxide.
In 1987, the federal government acquired the mine property, and the mine’s headframe was dismantled in 2008. Although controversy over elevated radiation levels and contamination at the site exists today, the Orphan Mine contributed high-grade uranium vital for U.S. national security interests during the height of the Cold War, while serving as one of Arizona’s classic high-grade uranium mines.