Over the Independence Day weekend, I took my family to the Bonne Terre Mine, about 50 miles south of St. Louis on Highway 67. It was once one of the world’s largest active lead mines, and the area around Bonne Terre is still known as the Lead Belt. Mining is still the major industry in southeast Missouri, and the area is dotted with big piles of mining waste, which the locals refer to as “chat.”
Mining in the area started way back in 1720 by French settlers; Bonne Terre Mine opened in 1860. It closed in 1962.
In 1979 the mine reopened as a tourist attraction. Over the 17 years it was abandoned, the mine flooded. When active, it was necessary to pump the water out to keep it operating, but a billion gallons of water in an abandoned mine also makes for an attractive scuba diving destination.
But the mine is also available for tours. I toured the mine several times in the 1980s when I was in grade school, though I hadn’t been back since 1987.
The mine is 58 degrees year-round, so we were more than comfortable in jeans in July. Our tour guide this time didn’t point it out, and I wasn’t certain I saw it, but the infamous New Madrid Fault is visible in the roof of the mine. The guide did explain that miners were paid $1 for each ton of ore they wheeled out of the mine. Miners were expected to haul out a ton per day, so if they hauled out a second car, it was considered a bonus. Miners who worked on scaffolding received an extra nickel per day due to the increased danger.
A good number of mining relics are still present because both the St. Joe Lead Company and the newly unemployed miners left most of the equipment behind in 1962 when the mine closed.
Being underground, it looks like a cave, but keep in mind it’s only about 140 years old, so it’s more accurate to say it looks like a young cave.
Tours cost $27 for adults and $20 for children. Tax isn’t included. Bring cash, as they don’t accept checks or credit cards. The tours last an hour and about half of it is on foot and half by boat.
With it only being about an hour’s drive from St. Louis, it’s an easy excursion. Since our boys are still young, we made it a morning trip, spending an hour getting there, looking around for about half an hour waiting for the tour, an hour in the mine, then we stopped for lunch and headed back. If you wanted a day trip, I would recommend hopping back onto Highway 67 and driving a few miles further south to neighboring Park Hills, home of the Missouri Mines State Historic Site, where you can see more exhibits and hear quite a few more stories than you’ll hear in Bonne Terre. Young kids will be more interested in going into a mine than hearing about mines, so we’ll save that for when they’re older.