A mystery? An enigma?
Author Josh Ostergaard says Vernon Pick was that and more.
Ostergaard is writing a book about the famous uranium prospector who first came to Lillooet in 1971 and built Walden North just south of town off Highway 99.
Ostergaard was here last month to continue his research and interview people who worked for or knew the reclusive millionaire.
Pick’s rags-to-riches story made headlines worldwide in 1954 when he sold his uranium mine on the Colorado Plateau for $9 million, pocketing $6 million after taxes – the equivalent of $52.4 million today.
TIME and LIFE magazines told the story of Pick’s discovery of the uranium deposit he later called the Hidden Splendor Mine. He recounted how he left his truck in the rugged southwest landscape and walked 25 miles to the isolated site. For one six-mile stretch he had to ford a stream 21 times.
Pick told TIME in 1954, “My feet got wet over and over again, and then they softened and the sand got in my boots and made blisters. At night I would pick the grains of sand out of the blisters with a matchstick.”
With part of his fortune, Pick purchased an 800-acre site in Saratoga in Santa Clara County, California. There, he built an electronics and geology lab that employed world-class scientists. To honour his hero Henry David Thoreau, he named a retreat on the property Walden West
Pick died in 1986.
Ostergaard, fascinated by his story, interviewed former Pick employees such as John Willey and Scott Hudson on an earlier visit to Lillooet. When he returned home to Chicago, he continued his research.
Originally, Ostergard wanted to tell Pick’s story in a documentary, “but that would have taken too much money and too much time,” he says. He gave up on the documentary and returned to school in Minneapolis, where he earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota.
While continuing his research on Pick, he also wrote a book about baseball called “The Devil’s Snake Curve: A Fan’s Notes from Left Field,” published in 2014.
This summer, he’s back researching the Pick book “in earnest” and has written 200 pages to date. He says he still has a “long way to go,” but has done enough research that he can now select the best stories for the book.
What is it about Vernon Pick that continues to fascinate him?
“He changes over time,” says Ostergaard. “The original thing that caught my interest was this idea that Pick was interested in Thoreau, independence and the natural environment. From 1946 to 1951, he had a place in Minnesota about an hour and a half north of Minneapolis where he dammed the river, created his own power, hunted and fished, had his own vegetable garden and was self-sufficient, trading his labour. What interested me was what came next – the stark contrast between what came before and the lifestyle after. He was quoted in a Minnesota newspaper in 1949, as saying something like ‘There are more ways of living than having a lot of money,’ and then look what happened to him. Three or four years later, he’s a millionaire for discovering a mineral that’s incredibly damaging to the environment.”
Ostergaard continues, “I kept wondering how that affects a person’s outlook, especially someone who was so thoughtful and deliberate about his early life. So I wondered what happens to a guy whose life circumstances change so radically. That was the original interest and that still holds my interest.
“Who am I to sum up somebody else’s life, but he definitely had two different ways of being in the world after he became wealthy,” he notes. “He enjoyed fancy meals now and then, he enjoyed the so-called finer things in life and then he had this gut-level determination to still be independent and have some sort of simplicity in his life. There’s a little contradiction there. I don’t know if he ever successfully navigated that.”
He says the book is not intended to be a biography focusing on Vernon Pick’s entire life.
Ostergaard observes, “He led a complex, fascinating life. I know there were lots of rumours flying around about him doing nuclear research and having a bomb shelter built. From what I can tell, there’s no evidence of anything like that at Walden North. From what I can tell, all that is just rumours on the internet. But in a somewhat surprising and ironic way, the rumours were true about what he did in California. I just came from Saratoga and he did have a bomb shelter…I don’t know where it is out there, but it exists.”
On that same property, Pick had a home for himself and his wife, a separate laboratory complex and a set of cabins deeper in the woods which he used as a retreat from his home and laboratory. Ostergaard calls it “a place to get away from people.”
In his California laboratory, he hired highly trained scientists who worked on a variety of projects. Some of them were with the Office of Naval Research. One of the projects was an effort to build a better scintillometer that could be used in a plane to fly over land and detect uranium deposits in the ground below.
His 100-acre Walden North complex outside Lillooet included a hydro-electric dam, powerhouse, craft and woodworking shop, garage and repair shop, welding and electrical shops and a place for electronic research and development.
His elegant home, reached by a tramway, contained first editions of classic books such as Thoreau’s “Walden: (Or Life in the Woods”), a 16th century book that was the first book ever published on mining, Persian tapestries and ancient Greek sculptures. All the valuables were removed from the buildings long ago.
Ostergaard doesn’t believe there’s a “one-line answer” to the question of why Pick chose Lillooet as his location for Walden North.
“The guys I’ve been interviewing said it’s as simple as it sounds – he wanted running water for hydro power, he wanted something that was remote but not too remote and he wanted beautiful landscapes,” he answers.
And then Ostergaard adds, “This is pure speculation - I saw a brochure from Lillooet from the 1970s and it said the place where three rivers meet. His place in Minnesota was called Two Rivers, so maybe he identified a little with that. And maybe, with the gold mining history here, he felt a kinship with all those prospectors.”