SILVERTON - A remarkable collection of ore samples on display at the San Juan County Historical Museum and Mining Heritage Center offers more than a glimpse of the Earth's geologic history.
It also tells of World War II intrigue, of the dawn of the nuclear age, and of some of the most famed mining districts in the world. And it traces the remarkable career of Silverton's own Phil Dodd, a geologist with a storied career in the early days of uranium mining.
Specimens from Australia, Africa, South America, and of course, more familiar uranium mining areas such as the nearby Uravan mineral belt, are all part of Dodd's collection.
"It is fairly broadly based," Dodd said of the specimens. He started collecting the ore samples while he was still in high school in the gold district near Wawa, Ontario. "There were four mines in the area," Dodd said. "Naturally I grabbed examples from three of those mines."
He describes those samples as "true hardrock gold" with very little copper. "That was the beginning," said Dodd, who is now 87.
A career in geologyAfter graduating from high school in Evanston, Ill., Dodd enrolled at Northwestern University, earning a bachelor's degree - and later a master's - in geology.
Dodd worked as a "technical man" at a mercury mine in Arkansas in 1942, where he "learned all about processing quicksilver." Ore from a mercury mine near Murphreesboro, Ark., is also among the collection on display at the museum.
But Dodd was of course just getting started.
"I was hired out of school in the spring of '48" by the new Atomic Energy Commission and dispatched to Grand Junction. The AEC was formed after World War II to replace the secretive Manhattan District of the Army Corps of Engineers, more commonly known as the Manhattan Project, the top secret effort to develop the atomic bomb. It later evolved into the Department of Energy.
"I hadn't really quite finished with school," Dodd said, "but I rushed out there to get started. They really wanted to get going."
The rush was on to find uranium.
"We were growing up in the uranium business," Dodd said. "In fact, we were the uranium business for several years."
Dodd said the AEC was out to promote a civilian nuclear power industry, "which we ultimately succeeded in doing." But first, they needed to find some fuel for the nuclear reactors.
The hunt for uranium"In the early days, it was about finding enough ore to feed the fusion separation plant at Oak Ridge (Tenn.)," Dodd said.
One of the first places they looked, Dodd said, was in the tailings piles from vanadium mine sites stretching from Gateway to Nucla, Colo. They found that uranium oxide had consolidated in fossilized logs in the area. In February 1949, Dodd and Army Corps of Engineers Capt. Phil Merritt, a Manhattan Project veteran in charge of finding uranium sources for the government, visited a mine in Monument Valley and found promising ore deposits in Triassic rocks there.
While "tooling around" the Lisbon Valley near Moab, Utah, around 1952, Dodd noticed an outcrop with "a little bit of yellow color - a slight anomaly in the rock." He said "a guy with a pick and shovel was trying to build a trail at the outcrop."
It was Charlie Steen, who was on the verge of a great discovery of uranium ore.
"I recommended a government drilling project there," Dodd said. "I was the 'world expert' - I'd been on the job that long, from 1948 to '52. We were learning as we went along."
Dodd said he has tried to gather unique ore specimens from around the world that highlight some of the more intriguing aspects of geology. "My collection, in my mind, is sort of an example of what the geologist should be interested in, rather than a mineralogist," Dodd said.
On to AustraliaDodd said that in the 1950s, the Atomic Energy Commission "loaned" him to the Australian government to launch a search for uranium deposits there. Soon he was in the Outback chasing down promising leads for uranium mining on that continent.
"By that time the Australian government had nationalized uranium," Dodd said, noting many other countries were doing the same. "But they offered a reward for anyone to find uranium."
A copper and uranium mineral known as torbernite was found near copper mines south of Darwin.
"Ultimately, two deposits on Rum Jungle Creek paid out. The mine was subsequently privatized and a town site was built near an abandoned World War II airbase," Dodd said.
"We had picnics on that airstrip," Dodd recalled. "And as a consequence, I have specimens from the Brown deposit and Dyson deposit in Rum Jungle.
Back in Grand Junction, Dodd, "being something of an expert at the time," was assigned to work with the International Atomic Energy Administration, an arm of the United Nations.
Out of AfricaIn 1957, Dodd was selected for what he called a "junket" to South Africa to visit the famed Witwatersrand mining district. There too, uranium could be found in the tailings piles left from decades of gold mining. And there too, Dodd grabbed some ore samples for his collection.
"I got samples of ores from the famous Rand," Dodd said, visiting 10 mines in 10 days. Again, he concentrated on gathering unique specimens.
"The ones I kept are part of the problem of what is the origin of the famous ore district," Dodd said.
Dodd said the Rand has a "carbon leader" layer a centimeter or two thick that still baffles geologists, since the hard hydrocarbon cap predates complex organisms on Earth.
Also on that trip, Dodd acquired samples from mines in what is now Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Among those are lithium mica samples "which were a mineral curiosity in 1957," Dodd said.
World War II intrigueAnother ore specimen Dodd has is also linked to Africa, and he says "it is perhaps the most important, historically, of the specimens I have up here."
The story goes back to the early days of the Manhattan Project.
"By the early 1940s there was enough in the literature, along with a couple refugees, including one named Enrico Fermi, dabbling with this stuff," Dodd said. "It looked like it was getting serious."
President Roosevelt ordered the formation of the secret "Manhattan Engineering District" within the Army Corps of Engineers, and the race to build the atomic bomb was on.
Capt. Merritt, put in charge of finding uranium sources, had realized that radium mines in Canada had been undercut in recent years by operations in the Belgian-held Congo. He inquired about production at a mine in the Congo run by a Belgian company. As a cover story, the request was cloaked as an interest in radium to illuminate gauges. Belgium was by then occupied by the Nazis.
Remarkably, the Belgian company's New York office had been trying to contact the U.S. government about what to do with some 1,250 tons of uranium ore it already had stored on Staten Island in some 2,000 barrels. They had been unable to get through the bureaucracy until the Manhattan Project thrust the matter into a top - albeit top secret - national priority.
This became "the first uranium in any bunch" acquired by the Manhattan Project, Dodd said. And a chunk of the rich ore taken from one of the barrels was later made into a paperweight for Merritt, who used it to illustrate what he was looking for. "It now sits in my collection," Dodd said. "Historically that is probably the most interesting and most valuable."
Work with the IAEAIn 1980, Dodd joined a group sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Administration looking at deposits in Portugal.
Dodd retired from the Department of Energy in 1981. "But I've still taken numerous trips here and there, particularly to Argentina and Brazil and a bit of Bolivia," Dodd said.
"The last 10 years I sort of fell by the wayside and became what I call a nuclear geophysicist."
He has been researching indirect ways of more accurately measuring uranium content in rock formations. He has co-written an important paper on techniques of interpreting gamma ray data for radium and uranium content.
Home in SilvertonAround 1950, Dodd, based out of Grand Junction, headed up to Silverton to escape the desert heat.
Dodd and his wife, Lynn, would often head up to the San Juans over the years.
"We were young, and camping with a tarp and sleeping bag," Dodd said. Lynn's nephew, Tim Smith, ended up moving to Silverton from California, and "we'd come up occasionally to see him as an excuse," Dodd said.
Dodd said he and Lynn would come up in the summer for events such as the melodramas John Ross put on.
"We got acquainted with the town and, lo and behold, we got tired of sleeping on the ground, so we decided to get us a place in town."
Lynn and Phil became active in developing Silverton's arts community, with Lynn "the main honcho" behind the Silverton Arts Council. They also helped start the Jubilee, precursor to today's Silverton Jamboree music festival.
The collectionDodd hopes that some will appreciate the ore collection he is leaving with the historical society.
"That's their's now," Dodd said. "I haven't signed anything, but I will if they want it."
He noted some of the tools he has had over the years are already housed at the museum.
"If 1 percent of the people that wander through there are really interested from a geology viewpoint, we'll be lucky," Dodd said. "But it is available for review and for study if they happen to pass through and know about it."
firstname.lastname@example.org. Mark Esper is editor of the Silverton Standard & the Miner.