Just an hour south of St. Louis sits the Southeast Missouri Lead District, home to the largest lead deposits in the world. Some 150 years ago, the area boomed alongside its lead mines, an exploitation of natural resources that altered economic fortunes as well as the physical terrain. A particularly plentiful subdistrict now known as the Old Lead Belt thrived.
Today, that landscape looks vastly different. Once-prosperous communities have declined, mines have closed and moved elsewhere. Environmental and health hazards loom large over a community that’s both proud and wary of its heritage as a major supplier of the world’s lead.
Recently, public concern over lead poisoning’s persistent issues across the United States has renewed, particularly in urban environments. Widespread lead contamination of tap water in Flint, Michigan, is only the most recent example.
As time passes, it has become increasingly clear that lead has had a more lasting and profound effect on human beings, the environment and our culture, than may ever have been foreseen, and that impact will continue for generations to come.
Lead was first discovered in Missouri in 1719 by the French explorer Philip François Renault. Large-scale surface mining commenced quickly after that, according to Art Hebrank, site administrator at the Missouri Mines State Historical Site. “It was a large operation,” Hebrank said. “It wasn’t just a couple of farmers or fur trappers mining in their spare time. It was 200 experienced miners and smelter men with black African slaves.”
With the advent of new technologies, lead mining expanded in 1864 from simple surface level mining to subsurface mining that followed the lead to depths hundreds of feet below the surface. More technological advances, including the diamond drill, electric rail and steam shovel, ushered in a new era of industrial-scale lead mining in southeast Missouri. From 1864 to 1972, in the Old Lead Belt mining subdistrict, roughly 8.5 million tons of elemental lead were extracted from mines that reached hundreds of feet below the surface.
During this 108-year period, lead mining in the Old Lead Belt completely reshaped southeast Missouri, through the establishment of company towns in rural areas where none had existed before and the permanent altering of the landscape by bringing to the surface hundreds of millions of tons of lead ore.
Of that ore, only 3 to 5 percent was lead, creating massive piles of mine tailings that still protrude on the horizon. Lead mining in the Old Lead Belt also played a key role in the construction of Bagnell Dam in 1929, creating the Lake of the Ozarks, the largest man-made reservoir in the United States at the time and still one of Missouri’s most recognizable landmarks.
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