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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Llano Boom


by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Since Texas' time as a colonial outpost of the Spanish crown, people have believed great mineral wealth lay hidden in what would become Llano County.

To some extent, they were right. Gold has been found there, as well as silver, copper, lead, mica and asbestos. For a time in the 1880s, the county actually produced a small amount of gold, and an iron mining boom followed.

But like most booms, a bust was not far behind. None of the metals or minerals have ever been found in large enough quantity for profitable mining.

In January 1954, as Americans worried about the possibility of nuclear war (though "atomic" was the big buzz word) with Russia, Llano appeared on the verge of becoming a uranium boom town.

S.B. Waters, a metallurgist from Brownwood, showed up in his Cadillac and got a drilling lease on a ranch about ten miles north of Llano. Soon he had rock cores that made a Geiger counter sing and tongues wag.

"I am sure we have an outstanding atomic reserve here," he told a reporter. "Just how thick it is remains to be evidenced. We have found radioactivity from the surface down. This is due to a massive ore at a great distance."

Waters said he had first discovered radioactivity in the area while doing aerial oil surveying in 1947. Indeed, during the 1930s several varieties of uranium had been mined from a formation at Barringer Hill. That area had been covered by the water of Lake Buchanan in 1937, but Llano County had other hills and a lot more rocks.

While Water kept drilling, another company came in from Abilene and leased acreage on another ranch. Then reporters started nosing around, talking to the drillers, who played what they knew pretty close to the vest, and townspeople, who were freer with their thoughts.

A newspaper reporter dispatched from Austin to Llano quickly got the gist of local sentiment:

  • Take it easy and see what develops
  • Buy maps and Geiger counters and go prospecting
  • Put the ranch up for lease
  • Scoff at the notion of Llano becoming a mining town

    As it turned out, the take-it-easy crowd and the scoffers proved to be the most realistic segment of the population.

    The Great Llano Uranium Boom lasted less than two weeks.


    On January 27, according to the Austin Statesman, a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Commission "dashed cold water on hopes that a major lode of the atomic ore uranium had been discovered near Llano."

    C.E. Towle, chief of the AEC's Denver office, informed Llano Chamber of Commerce President Robert Kassell that the agency's field representatives had been unable to find "radioactive materials in sufficient quantities to be of commercial value" in the county.

    It may not have seemed like it at the time, but that was some of the best news Llano ever got.

    Though the uranium mining boom of the 1950s and '60s brought prosperity to some corners of the nation, it also brought scarred land, radioactive waste and a high cost in human lives. One Internet site with statistics on mining says uranium mining proved to be the deadliest form of mining ever, with an estimated worldwide death toll of 22,000 from cancer and other causes.

    As the Llano Chamber of Commerce came to realize, the real treasure in its county is the scenery and the abundance of white tail deer.



  • Mike Cox - Sept. 17, 2003 column
    More "Texas Tales"


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