|The area around Bonne Terre is part of the Viburnum District. This area was the largest lead belt in the world. Lead mining shaped the history and character of the area. Though the mines are now closed, their history has made Bonne Terre and surrounding communities what they are today.Mining in the area was done in parts of Jefferson, Franklin, Crawford, Washington and St. Francois Counties. This area is dominated by rolling hills of the Ozark Plateau with elevations up to 300 feet. The ground is mostly red clay over a base of limestone.
The first miners in the area were French as it was part of the Louisiana Territory (later added to the U. S. as the Louisiana Purchase). Two Frenchmen, LaMotte and Renault, had chartered the Company of the West. Louis XV granted it the right to mine in the lower territory. Renault left France in 1719 with 200 miners to seek their fortunes in silver and gold. They set up headquarters near Kaskaskia, Illinois. The miners searched the area and while not finding silver or gold, found lead around Mine La Motte and Potosi. Operations at these mines continued until 1742 when Renault returned to France.
Spain acquired the territory in 1762. In 1798 a Virginian, Moses Austin, obtained a land grant near Potosi from the Spanish and began mining. He set up a furnace and was joined by others in the operation.
During the 19th century a number of mines began in the area. They were surface mines from which the miners pulled galena ore from the clay. Eventually they sunk shallow shafts into the ground as they found seams or drifts of the ore. Following the ore was hit or miss and numerous shafts were sunk to find the drifts. The ore was smelted at a number of furnaces in the area. Most furnaces were near the mines at the best transportation available was usually mule trains.
The area was host to dozens of mining companies. Most of them were small operations that either played out their original mines or sold to larger companies. In the early 20th century St. Joe would become the only company left as it bought out the few remaining companies.
The St. Joseph Lead Company was founded on March 25, 1864 in New York with $1 million in stock. The stock was issued to Lyman Gilbert for purchase of 946 acres of land in St. Francois County. The land was part of the LaGrave mines owned by Anthony LaGrave. The land was under mortgage for $75,000 and stock was sold at half par value to raise the money.
The next year stockholders learned of the debt and poor progress at the mine site. Each season brought a new problem: summer droughts removed water needed for processing, fall brought a raid from General Price of the CSA army, winter was sever and spring brought damaging floods. Proceeds from sale of lead ore covered only half the cost of operations. The stockholders elected a new board of directors to put the company back on track.
The new board visited the mine in 1865 and vowed to clear the debts. They proposed a voluntary fee on the company stock which paid off the mortgage and erased the debt. Later in the year a new superintendent, J. C. Winslow, was appointed. He brought a number of Cornish miners (immigrants from Cornwall in southwest England who were experts in tin mining). In addition a new furnace, company store and equipment were put in place.
The mines were surface mines at this point. Men dug down to the veins of ore and set charges to blast out chunks of rock. These rocks were broken up and fed into a hammermill and rollers which crushed them into tiny particles. The ore was separated from rock by “jigging”. The stone was placed in a water-filled sieve on a long pole. A worker shook the sieve allowing the heavier lead to separate and sink to the bottom.
From here the lead ore went into a furnace. This device used wood to melt the lead. Heat, injected air and stirring created a liquid slurry that ran down the inclined hearth and into iron pots. From these lead was poured into molds to make 74 lb. ingots or “pigs”.
Aside from the costs of labor weather posed a problem. Since the mines were surface or very shallow rain often pooled in them. During dry summers processing water was scarce and ice and snow posed problems during the winter. In early years the mines only produced about half of each year.
Production was not great in the early years. The mine averaged 240 tons per year. This was not enough to even cover expenses, much less turn a profit.
At the annual meeting in 1867, conditions had improved. New equipment and facilities were in place. Miners were moving underground, allowing them to work more days. New pumps and ground water averted drought problems.
Throughout the rest of the century, the mine was managed by C. B. Parsons. Mr. Parsons was in charge of a mine in Massachusetts that closed in 1866. J. Wyman Jones visited him and persuaded him to tour the Missouri mine. On May 18, 1867, Parsons began his new duties as superintendent at Bonne Terre. He lived with his family in the only wood frame house, the workers homes and other buildings being log cabins. A much larger hilltop residence was built later and known as the “Superintendent’s House”.
In 1867 and 1868 production improved and new capital was invested in equipment. The company issued $100,000 bonds, which were all bought by stockholders, to cover the debt. While the company defaulted on interest payments several times, they did repay the bonds in 1881.
The miners were mostly locals who had come to the are as small farmers, timber cutters and rock quarrymen. They often went into the lead mines to supplement their meager incomes from other activities. Other miners emigrated here from Europe. Many were Hungarian with a number of other Slavic and southern European peoples. The Hungarians, known as “Hunkies”, were involved in one of the most famous incidents in the mine.
The foreign workers were often single men who boarded with the miners. Their customs were somewhat frowned upon by the locals. They were also often shovelers, the lowest paid and least skilled job underground. In 1917 Americans were being registered for the draft in the military build-up before World War I. The majority of foreign workers were not naturalized citizens and were exempted from the draft.
In July 1917 an incident erupted in one of the mine changing rooms. It is reported that a miner asked one of the foreign workers if he would join up if the U. S. entered the war. The Hunkie replied that he would stay here, take the miner’s job and his woman. A fight broke out that led to closure of the mine. The miners then shut down surrounding mines and rounded up the Hunkies. They were placed in empty box cars at the depot, hooked onto the train and shipped them out of town.
According to local newspapers, 500 to 600 miners rounded up about 500 foreign workers. Through the evening the miners searched for foreigners to send to St. Louis on the train. Some shots were fired and some of the foreigners roughed up but there were no injuries reported. The next morning the St. Francois County Sheriff contacted the governor who sent militia units from St. Louis to restore order. These guardsmen set up camps around the area and searched vehicles at checkpoints. About 80 miners were taken to area jails while a grand jury convened to determine what had happened during the riot.
One of the most visible reminders of the mines are the chat dumps. These are large piles of tailings left from the milling process when ore was separated from rock. The leftover gravel was piled up to reduce land coverage and runoff problems. In the 1930′s a new process of mixing the ore with water to form a slurry was used. The spoils from this went into “slime ponds”. One of the chat piles in Park Hills was removed but others remain. They were used as sources of paving gravel for years until the problem of lead contamination halted these practices. The remaining piles have been encased in clean rock and are no longer considered hazardous.
For more information, see Smith, Peary A., “50Pb: Early History of the Lead Belt”, Blake Graphic Arts, 1985 and Jones, J. Wyman, “A History of the St. Joseph Lead Company”, St. Joseph Lead Company, New York, 1892. These books are available in the reference section of the library.