Born in Durango, Harry Goulding was a sheepman who marveled at the red rock monoliths of Monument Valley, Utah.
He brought Hollywood to Monument Valley and the Navajo Nation, but he also brought Geiger counters, uranium mines and decades of damage from radioactivity. How ironic that the same man who helped to create the modern image of the rugged American West and jobs for Navajo actors also urged employment for Navajo uranium miners with devastating health consequences. And it all began with sheep.
In 1897, Durango was a blue-collar mining town with a smelter spouting smoke along the Animas River as gold and silver ores were brought in by rail. Born in that year, Harry Goulding, who wore cowboy boots his entire life, never finished high school. He learned to trail sheep from Aztec up the Animas Valley to Silverton. His family may have moved as many as 20,000 sheep into the high country in a year.
Searching for winter grazing lands, the tall, lean cowboy went west along the San Juan River to Bluff, Utah, then Mexican Hat, and finally found what he was looking for in red rock cliffs on the edge of Arizona and Utah on the old Paiute strip adjacent to the Navajo Nation.
By the mid-1920s, Harry and his wife, Leone, nicknamed Mike, lived in a 10-by-12-foot tent at the base of a red rock cliff on the northern edge of Monument Valley. The Navajo called it Big Rock Door Mesa, and they expected the Gouldings to leave. Instead, Harry bought 640 acres, a square mile, from the state of Utah for just $320.
He intended to stay and set about building a two-story stone trading post with cozy living quarters on the second floor and trade goods below. His flocks grazed western San Juan County, Utah. Both Harry and his wife became fluent in Navajo. A book of oral history interviews, “Tall Sheep: Harry Goulding, Monument Valley Trader” by Samuel Moon, recounts numerous stories of the Gouldings helping their Native neighbors with medical emergencies.
But the trading business was slow, and with the onset of the Great Depression, it stopped. Harry looked for other opportunities, while catering to a trickle of tourists, including the California photographer Josef Muench, who made more than 300 trips to shoot the dramatic scenery that unfolded outside the Gouldings’ front door.
When Harry learned that United Artists was seeking a unique location for a new Western film, he thought he’d go to Hollywood and show off Muench’s photos. He thought he could get into the director’s office. He left his wife in the car, knitting. His perseverance would change the film industry.
“What he managed to do while he was there reverberates to this day,” wrote Buzz Bissinger in “Inventing Ford Country,” published in Vanity Fair. Bissinger noted, “Harry Goulding helped invent the American West as we see it and think of it today.”
The striking Monument Valley scenery would make the careers of director John Ford and actors John Wayne and Harry Carey, Jr., who would later retire in Durango. The 1939 film “Stagecoach” brought Western movies out of the two-bit horse opera era onto the world stage.
“Never before had a Western looked so western, and, by extension, so distinctly American,” Bissinger said.
Irascible, temperamental John Ford, who wore a silk tie for a belt, never buttoned his shirt cuffs, and drank too much, believed Monument Valley to be the “most complete, beautiful and peaceful place on Earth.”
Goulding provided lodging for the actors, led tours, helped locate Navajo extras and built a motel at the base of a dramatic 800-foot-tall cliff. By the late 1950s, as more films were shot in towering Monument Valley, the Navajo Nation set aside the scenery as one of the first tribal parks. Goulding could have been satisfied knowing that his desperate trip to Hollywood had paid off. He had defined the visual West as no one else. Shot among red rock pinnacles, the 1955 film “The Searchers” has been considered the finest Western ever made.
American culture scholars have linked the popularity of 1950s Westerns to the Cold War.
We had won World War II, but now we were in a nuclear arms race, and we feared the spread of communism. As Western movies and television shows proliferated, as John Wayne strutted across the silver screen with all the confidence of post-war America, a Colt pistol on his hip and a Winchester in his hands, our past and our present fused together. In remote Monument Valley, Harry Goulding and his trading post stood at that cultural intersection, too. A businessman, he encouraged local Navajos to look for bodies of uranium ore. It would mean more trade at Goulding’s store.
“Not long ago two of my Navajo friends rode up to the trading post and told me of a distant canyon where they had noticed some rocks that were crusted with a bright-yellow substance and some nodules of blood-red crystals,” Harry Goulding wrote in Popular Mechanics in June 1950. “This is exciting news and I’m going to explore the canyon. In this country, a canary-yellow mineral that occurs within the red crystals of vanadium is almost certain to be a uranium ore. Possibly by the time you read this, the United States will have one more mine producing the raw material for atomic energy.”
Radioactive ore would be called yellowcake and would be shipped to the Durango smelter in uncovered haul trucks. Durango’s smelter, which had processed gold and silver when Goulding was born, was by the 1940s secretly processing uranium.
Goulding concluded his article saying Navajo land “was given to them as a reservation because it was considered worthless for any other purpose. No one dreamed, then, that it contained a big percentage of our uranium reserves and that because of this it actually is one of the most valuable areas in the country.”
In a photo in Life Magazine on June 4, 1951, Goulding appears with Navajo uranium miners. The story is titled “Navajos Go Into Uranium Business: Ore is Raising Standard of Living on Their Reservation.”
Life proclaimed that by working in unventilated mines “a Navajo can make double his old yearly income in a week.” Navajo prospectors “are now borrowing Geiger counters from Harry Goulding, who runs the local trading post, and are scouring their old hunting grounds for new deposits of uranium-rich ore.”
Many of the Navajos did not yet speak English. There is no word in Navajo for radiation. There were no respirators or masks, no safety procedures to warn against contamination.
From 1944 to 1986, 30 million tons of uranium ore were excavated on the Navajo Nation, which now has 500 abandoned mines and four inactive uranium mill sites along with contaminated groundwater and structures built on radioactive foundations.
There are about 30 abandoned mines in Monument Valley, including two of the biggest mines, Monument No. 1 and Monument No. 2, which was discovered by Luke Yazzie who brought the first ore into Goulding’s trading post, though Yazzie was paid virtually nothing for his mining claim.
Harry Goulding left a complicated legacy. Because he went to Hollywood, annually over half a million tourists from around the world journey to Monument Valley Tribal Park to see the vistas he made famous. Because he loaned out Geiger counters, uranium deposits were discovered. From adjacent mines Navajo families suffered ill health, birth defects and early deaths.
In 2005, with passage of the Dine Natural Resources Protection Act, the Navajo Nation forever banned uranium mining. In Monument Valley, the mythic scenery is still there with its primordial sunrises and sunsets, but so, too, is the yellow dust.
Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and a professor of history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.