Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bonne Terre

Bonne Terre, MO, population 4,939, is about 60 miles directly south of St. Louis. From 1864 until 1960 it was home to what became the largest lead mine in the world. Lead was extracted in this area as early as 1720 by the French. Surface mining of lead quickly spread throughout the eastern Ozarks becoming one of the engines for European settlement. Prior to the Civil War the primary uses of lead was for water pipes, containers, white pigment [remember lead paint?], manufacture of crystal and roofing. The Civil War caused a significant increase in the demand for lead as bullets and shot.

On March 25, 1864, six New York businessmen incorporated the St. Joseph Lead Company. Few of the incorporators knew or cared much about the mining business. They bought the 950 acres known as Bonne Terre for $25,000 cash and $50,000 in unsecured bonds. They hoped that the mere possibility of a profitable lead mine might bring investors and they would get rich. One hopeful stockholder who attended the 1865 annual meeting in New York City was J. Wyman Jones, a young lawyer from Utica, NY. In a turn of events common in those robber baron times he was promptly named president of the company. Jones turned out to be a terrific manager. The mine prospered.

On a tree-lined street with a few modest Victorian homes in the middle of town is a block surrounded by a high board fence. In the center of the gravel parking lot inside sits a square green building with a sign over double doors reading “Mule Entrance.” Old, rusting mining gear, small gauge mining cars and power shovels are scattered around. Along the back is a row of tired storefronts with a board sidewalk. There's a general store, but the rest are labeled: Showers, Changing Rooms, Diver's Lounge. The store is locked with a sign that the next tour starts in fifteen minutes. The price for a one hour walking tour is $18 a person, $23 if you add the boat tour. We decide to pass. It is getting late.

Just as we were about to leave two men emerged from nowhere. The older guy with a handlebar mustache dressed in what looked like a painter's outfit introduced himself as Chuck. He wanted to know if we were interested a tour. We hesitated. He unlocked the store and showed us a live video feed from the dock on the underground lake.

It is a scene from another world. Beyond the dock a flood-lit blue green lake stretches in all directions. The roof is supported by huge stone pillars that disappear into darkness. We are hooked.

Back in 1960 the lead ore was running out. A new source of better quality ore was located further into the Ozarks. Bonne Terre Mine closed and the pumps that kept spring water out were turned off. Crystal clear water quickly filled the mine nearly to the top. The town tried using the water for a municipal supply but it had too many dissolved minerals. That's when the owners of a St. Louis Dive shop, Doug and Cathy Georgens, bought the place. They pumped the top two levels of the mine dry and set up “Billion Gallon Lake Resort.” Thanks in no small part to numerous cable TV shows that have featured it, people come from all over the world to scuba dive.

Chuck shows us a fist size chunk of nearly pure galena, the state mineral of Missouri. Galena, or lead sulfide, is silver gray, and has a metallic gleam. He shows us old mining tools and explains their use. We enter the mine and walk down 60 steps or so to the upper level. We are in a series of dimly lit massive rooms each a cube about the size of a city block. Every 40 feet or so a hand-hewn stone column rises to the roof. We look down a shaft where ore was dumped and we can see the lake far below. We work our way down room after room. Some have calcite coated walls, cream colored if iron is mixed in, black if manganese, green if copper, pink if cobalt, stark white if pure.

When the mine was opened in the 19th Century all the work was done by hand using simple tools. Men dug with shovels. They drilled holes by pounding a drill bit with a sledgehammer. They filled the holes with black powder and blew up the rock, hoping not to blow themselves up in the process. They loaded one ton cars by hand. A shift lasted as long as it took to load 22 cars. The cars were hauled along narrow gauge rails by mules. The mules lived their entire working life underground. Day after day for a hundred years the miners broke rock and hauled it out leaving behind this huge void of about 1,500 giant rooms on increasingly deep levels. When the rooms became too tall, they built tottering wooden scaffolds and hung trapezes from the ceilings 50 feet in the darkness where they continued to hammer rock. The work was dangerous and serious injuries frequent. Chuck told us if an injured miner managed to live long enough to be carried out of the mine, the authorities didn't record his death as a mine accident.

We reach the dock and board a pontoon party barge with a silent electric engine. A group of eight divers swim just ahead of us then disappear. We glide from eerie room to room. Lights make the clear water glow green. We can dimly see mining equipment in the deep. I keenly sense the ghosts of long gone miners watching as we trudge back to daylight.

1 comment:

  1. After I posted this story I was reminded by Chris Whyland, my old writing partner, that the St. Joe Mineral Corp which formerly operated mines in the north country of New York was the successor in interest to the same St. Joe Lead Company that operated Bonne Terre mine. They operated zinc and lead mines in Balmat and Edwards, NY and a large talc mine in Gouvernour, NY. The problem with the NY mines is that asbestos is a contaminant in the ore, especially in the talc mines. Quite a few years ago a colleague of mine, Ted Oot, resolved to help miners prove in workers' compensation court that the asbestos in talc was making them sick. He appealed a lot of cases and eventually established a new standard for proving occupational disease cases that is still the law. There followed a big class action civil liability case (handled by the Syracuse firm Setright & Ciabotti) involving hundreds of workers that was eventually dismissed because of the different standard of proof in civil cases.

    The end of St. Joe's involvement in the NY north country came in the 1980s. There was a nasty strike beginning in 1985. Then suddenly St. Joe's ended operations and sold all its mining and smelting operations to ZCA (Zinc Corporation of America), a non-union company, in 1987. More about this strike can be found in a great article in the NY Times.