The third section of my journey home to Utah from Philadelphia revolved around the lead mines of Missouri. On Thursday morning, Aug. 3, I was at St. Francois State Park near Bonne Terre, Missouri in the Old Lead Belt, and I toured the Bonne Terre Lead Mine as well as the Missouri Mines State Historic Site in Leadington.
When French explorers made their way up the Mississippi River they came to a place where shiny, heavy rocks were scattered over the surface. This was rich galena ore, or lead sulfide, which forms shiny, dark-gray cubic crystals. They named the area Bonne Terre, meaning “Good Earth” and did some surface mining beginning about 1720. Later settlers took up the mining operations in the late 1800s and sunk shafts into the richest ore bodies, which extended in a rough line from just west of St. Louis southeasterly about 100 miles along the Mississippi River toward the toe of Missouri. This area, known as the Old Lead Belt, and 1000 miles of tunnels and chambers and 300 miles of railroad tracks were cut out of the native limestone. Another band of rich lead ore, called the Viburnum Trend, is still being mined further west. This is the richest lead deposit in the world, and supplied demand for lead for over 60 years.
As the miners dug into the rocks at Bonne Terre, their first chamber, nearest the surface, didn’t have very much good ore. So they sunk further shafts and started a new level, this one much richer. It extended for hundreds of yards under the town of Bonne Terre, and used a chamber and pillar method of mining. The limestone rock there was solid enough that huge chambers over 40 feet high were eventually dug, with supporting pillars. When they had reached the edges of the ore body all around, they delved even deeper, sinking new shafts and creating a new level under the first two, with pillars carefully lined up on top of each other to keep the weight supported. This went on for a total of five levels, each one extending further out on the sides as the ore body widened, forming a huge pyramid of levels. Other lead mines in the Old Lead Belt did the same thing, and most of them interconnected so that when the mines were active you could travel through hundreds of miles of underground chambers and tunnels. Being in this mine reminded me very much of the Mines of Moria in the Lord of the Rings. I kept looking out for orcs . . .
Once mining ended at Bonne Terrre, the lower levels began to flood with water since it was no longer being pumped out. Eventually the bottom three levels all flooded and part of the second level. The tour takes you down through the first and into the second level along the old mule trail, and for an additional fee, you can take a pontoon boat out on this billion gallon underground lake. It sounds like the perfect setting for a horror movie, but the only living thing in all this water is a large-mouthed bass named Bonnie that has to live off of worms the tour guides bring in. She was transplanted here ten years ago and still survives in this deep lake. She isn’t too lonely, however. Between the tours, cave divers come here regularly, and some TV programs have been here as well, including a season of Nickelodeon that was kicked off here and an underground wakeboarding contest sponsored by Red Bull drinks. I’m not sure how they managed to get the boats in and out – they can only come in through the shafts that lead to the surface. They must have been taken apart and reassembled in the chambers.
After a very interesting tour, I traveled south ten miles to Leadington and Park Hills and went through the Missouri Mines State Historic Site. Built in an old lead mine/concentration plant building of the St. Joseph Lead Company, this museum has equipment on display as well as a world-class collection of rocks and minerals from Missouri and around the world. Some of their samples rival those at the Smithsonian.
They have been collected and the site is administered by Art Hebrank, who has been a geologist for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and really knows his stuff. I had a very enjoyable talk with him, and he discussed some of the plans they have for renovating the site and expanding the museum. Right now, the museum is housed in the old power house while the rest of the site is a rusting ruin (but very fascinating for those of us who get into such things). I took a lot of photos and panoramic video there.
I highly recommend that if you are interested in the history of Missouri or of mining or, like me, you want to know where the elements come from, then you should take the Bonne Terre mine tour and visit the Missouri Mines State Historic Site. It was definitely worth my time. Between the mine tour and the museum, I now have a the footage and photos I need to create an excellent podcast episode or two on Missouri lead mining.