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Scuba Diving, a Boat Ride or a Guided Walking Tour "The Bonne Terre Mine"
Walking down the 65 stair steps one’s excitement builds as you pass from wood to rock. Reaching the bottom you see a large opening standing in front of you. Upon entering that opening your excitement turns to awe and wonder as you stand gazing at only the first of many rooms where over a hundred years ago miners dug what was once the world’s largest lead mine. You are now in an underground 80 square mile network of tunnels and caverns consisting of five levels known as The Bonne Terre Mine. With ceilings supported by solid rock pillars 50 feet around and up to 200 feet tall the huge man made caverns are just amazing.
The mine is located approximately 60 minutes south of St Louis in Bonne Terre, MO. The mine sits 40 to 50 feet underneath the entire town of Bonne Terre and the idea of driving through the town on such a relatively thin crust of earth over such a vast hollow expanse can make one feel a little uneasy.
The area around Bonne Terre is known as the Viburnum District which at one time made up the largest lead belt in the world. Originally attracted to the area by the abundant forest land, wildlife and rivers, lead mining first began in the early seventeen hundreds by the French when Missouri was part of the Louisiana Territory. In 1803 ownership of the area was transferred to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Surface mining, as opposed to digging underground caverns, dominated and was expanded throughout the district. Other minerals such as zinc, copper and nickel were also mined but lead ore remained the dominant mineral becoming increasingly important with the outset of the civil war. In 1864 Bonne Terre and the surrounding Missouri area was involved in a semi successful raid by Confederate Major General Sterling Price in an attempt to secure a much needed source of lead for the South.
It was during that same year of 1864 that the Bonne Terre Mine as we know it today was started by the St. Joseph Mining Company. Though slow to show profitability during the first few years of operation the mine eventually became such a large source of income for the company it propelled them to being one of the world’s major lead suppliers and at one point they supplied nearly 70% of all the lead produced in the United States. In 1962 the mine was closed, they simply laid off the workers, shut off the lights and walked away from one of the largest man made caverns in the world leaving drills, ore carts, hand tools, helmets and everything else just like it was.
With the power shut off so were the water pumps that had been kept running for so many years keeping the mine dry and it slowly filled up with water. Between 1980 and 1981 scuba diving enthusiasts Doug and Cathy Goergens purchased the mine and set out to develop it as a diving center. Now with over a billion gallons of crystal clear water and seventeen miles long it is the country’s largest subterranean lake and the largest fresh water scuba diving venue in the world with visibility of up to a hundred feet. In 1983 even Jacque Cousteau toured the then 24 dive trails offered which have since been increased to 28. He is quoted to have remarked that it was one of the best locations he had ever dived at.
The mine has a complete dive shop on site with tanks, air and everything else for your dive including rentals if needed. For those non-divers the mine offers a fantastic walking tour of the first two levels and once you reach the third level a pontoon boat tour of the lake itself. Once done visiting the mine you will also want to check out the Missouri Mines State Historical Site and Museum located just a few more miles down Hwy-67.
Diver or not Bonne Terre Mine is a highly recommended activity as it is something not found anywhere else in the entire world.
Bonne Terre Mine Tours
Hwy 47 & Allen St.
Bonne Terre, MO 63628
Local: 573-358-2148, Reservations: 314-209-7200, Toll Free: 888-843-3483