Long before Missouri became a state, early French settlers in the region used picks and shovels to carve out mines that would become some of largest and most valuable on earth. The area's lead production alone was valued at nearly $5 billion dollars – more than the gold rushes in California and Alaska combined.
Explore this intriguing part of Missouri's history at mining museums, historic sites and one of the largest deep-earth mines in the world.
Step back in time at a milling complex in Missouri's Lead Belt, an area that once produced nearly 80 percent of the country's mined lead. The former powerhouse has been turned into a museum that includes exhibits about the history of mining in the Show-Me State and mining equipment that was once considered state-of-the-art. See one of the Midwest's finest collections of minerals from around the world – don't miss a special display of fluorescent minerals that glow in brilliant colors under ultraviolet light.
During the summer, an outdoor guided tour will take you into the historic mill buildings that served the vast underground mine system that extended for miles beneath Missouri's mining communities.
Descend 65 steps into one of the world's largest lead mines, founded in 1860. A walking tour will take you along trails where miners toiled long ago in the dark, chilly underground until the mine ceased operation in 1962. Board a pontoon boat for a tour on the one-billion-gallon, mile-long underground lake, formed when the mine closed, its pumps turned off and groundwater flooded the cavern's three lowest levels. Scuba divers come from all over the world to explore the mine's underwater passageways and see the artifacts left behind – an experience National Geographic called one of the top 10 adventures in America.
Explore the mining history of Southwest Missouri where miners uncovered lead and zinc deposits. The museum's mineral collection includes exceptional examples of lead and zinc ore and also features exhibits about the early days of Joplin, including Route 66 and the infamous Bonnie and Clyde.
Learn about Missouri's coal mining history that dates back to the 1880s when the northern part of the state was home to more than 50 coal mines. The museum features a simulated mine, blacksmith shop and antique farm tools.
Get a glimpse of what life was like in one of the oldest mining towns in Southwest Missouri. Housed in an old mercantile store on Main Street, the museum is filled with mining tools, rocks, minerals, and old newspapers and photographs that chronicled everyday life in a mining town.
View minerals and fossils from throughout the world, including a black light mineral exhibit. Visitors can dig for minerals, fossils and geodes in the quarry and pan for gems and fossils in the sluice. The park also offers tours of Current River Cavern.
See relics of the region's mining history, including one of the first successful iron works west of the Mississippi. The location was perfect for the operation: water from the state's fifth largest spring powered the mill, and abundant timber fueled the furnace. Along with a museum, the property operates one of Missouri's popular trout parks.
Missouri's contributions to mining continue today at the University of Science & Technology where students study engineering challenges that occur in mining situations. Take a guided tour of the school's historic 1921 limestone mine, voted the "most awesome college laboratory" by Popular Science magazine. The university also has a Mineral Museum that includes mineral displays from the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.
Be sure to check the mine and museum websites for hours and admission fees.
Written by Liz Coleman