After climbing, camping in, or hiking through the National Parks that surround Moab, visitors might want to eat at a family-owned restaurant—The Sunset Grill. Before its transformation into a restaurant, this complex was the mansion of multi-millionaire uranium miner Charles Steen, a visionary prospector whose rags to riches (and back to rags) story still resonates with those who have seen the best and worst of times.
Each year, over 1.5 million outdoor enthusiasts visit Arches National Park, a mountain biker, hiker, and rock climber paradise, located outside of Moab. One popular restaurant where adrenaline junkies and nature lovers can refill is Sunset Grill, currently owned by a former aerospace engineer and a nightclub manager from Pennsylvania who moved to Moab in 1993. But before it was a restaurant, the site was the hilltop mansion built and owned by Charles Steen, a “rags to riches uranium boom king” who made his fortune in the 1950s.
In the early 1940s, Steen studied geology at the Texas College of Mines and Metallurgy (today the University of Texas at El Paso). After working in South America as a petroleum geologist and then in Texas for Standard Oil Company, Steen was fired for insubordination and blacklisted by the industry. In the December 1949 issue of the The Engineering and Mining Journal, he learned that the Atomic Energy Commission, desperate to supply uranium for the government’s nuclear weapons program, “established minimum prices, guaranteed the rates for ten years, and added a $10,000 bonus for each separate discovery . . . of high-grade uranium from new deposits.” Steen headed west. He, his wife, and four sons moved around in trailers and backcountry, tarpaper shacks for almost two years. Finally, on 6 July 1952, Steen struck big at Mi Visa Mine near Moab, which shipped a million dollars’ worth of ore in its first six months. Before then, he had been sustaining his family on a “diet of potato chips and bananas.” His son recalls that they had been “living in a $15 a month shack, unencumbered with running water or electricity.” But Steen’s willpower paid off. Moab, a sleepy town, became home to a millionaire.
He quickly built a $250,000 hilltop mansion in Moab, replete with a swimming pool, greenhouse, and even servants’ quarters. Steen also lived lavishly by purchasing a private plane, which he flew to Salt Lake City for weekly dancing lessons. Although he spent much of his money lavishly, Steen was known as a friendly man who gave to the community. Every year, he invited the entire population of Moab to annual parties and donated $50,000 toward a local hospital. His discovery put Moab on the map as the “Uranium Capital of the World” and created hundreds of jobs. He was elected to the Utah State Senate in 1958, but when the country had obtained enough ore and stopped supporting his prices, he suffered heavy financial losses. After he declared bankruptcy in 1968, the IRS seized his assets. Although he went from rags to riches, then lost his riches, Steen’s mansion, now a restaurant, is still open for business, overlooking the town like he once did.