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It’s more than its visible physical parts — tunnels, shafts and pillars. A mine is also the sum of its stories.
So it is with Bonne Terre Mine: stories of the miners who used pickaxes, shovels and the occasional stick of dynamite to tunnel into the solid earth to create a cavernous and profitable mine. And the stories of the families who lost some of those men who were lowered down into the mine shafts to earn a dirty day’s keep.
Today, it’s these stories and the many artifacts they left behind that awe thousands of divers and tourists who make the Missouri mine a destination.
DOWN TO EARTH Snaking for about 17 miles below the town of Bonne Terre — about an hour’s drive from St. Louis — the mine is as challenging to dive as it is unique. Owned by Doug and Kathy Goergens, Bonne Terre Mine (which means “good earth” in French) is a year-round dive destination that promises a firsthand glimpse into ore mining in the early 1900s.
After lugging our dive gear 154 feet underground by way of a winding incline and a staircase of 62 steps — yes, I counted — we set up for our first dive. Although we’re excited to follow our guide into the water, I first take a look around. The cavernous mine is lit by a total of about 600,000 watts of lights, strung from the pillars that miners created as they chipped away the rock to reach iron ore. The damp gloom offers just the right amount of topside visibility to let visitors sense the vastness of the mine without diminishing the feeling of being someplace special.
And then there are the sounds. Besides the occasional voice ricocheting off the walls through the caverns, the only noise heard in the mine is the steady drip, drip, drip of water coming in through the ceilings and plopping onto the rock or into the water.
A first-timer to Bonne Terre will start with trails 1 and 2, which bring you off the dock and around a few of the rock pillars over to a wooden staircase where divers have scrawled their names in the silt. To ensure the safety of all who dive here, Bonne Terre dive guides and safety divers make sure that visiting divers have completed a trail before advancing to the next.
We are a bit luckier.
Following longtime dive guide Scott “Bear” Fritz, Bonne Terre’s director of training, into the blackness, we head into the cool waters with the intention of seeing some of the mine’s highlights that are not necessarily on beginner trails. One of our first stops is an intentionally sunk train engine resting in about 95 feet of water. We then spend time exploring an ore cart, likely left exactly as it was when the miners exited for the final time in 1961. Full of mining hand tools, the cart’s contents are a remarkable reminder of how this tough work was done: by hand.
During surface intervals on the dive dock, Fritz shared stories of his research on the mine, including time spent with miners years ago. He learned the details behind a few of the sights he had come across while exploring, like the marks scored into the rock next to Cotton Pierce’s name in Horseshoe Room on Trail 7. “Those kept track of the number of ore carts filled for payment,” Bear says. The cables tightly wound around some of the rock columns were put in place to ensure the stability of the pillars that may have been mined out a bit too far.
RISKY BUSINESS Fritz’ insights give a sense of what the miners risked as they worked in the mine, such as when he tells us about the catwalk that hangs precariously from the rock ceiling. The men built it by pushing boards out onto metal cables dozens, if not hundreds, of feet above the rocky bottom.
At every turn in Bonne Terre Mine there is another outstanding find — like the aptly named Smoke Room. Bear leads us to see a pipe broken by rust and age. It gives the eerie appearance that it’s smoking. That’s due to oxidizing rust, which appears in the water as gray smoke rising from the pipe. In its working days, this pipe served as a conduit for the slurry of water and dirt that was pumped from the mine.
On our way to and from some of our destinations, we often get a glimpse of a bit of daylight shining down into the dim mine. Although men were lowered into the mine through air shafts built throughout the mine, only one — the 1095 air shaft — remains intact. This too serves as a reminder to visitors. We are below ground — far below ground. The mine is about 350 feet at its deepest.
Bonne Terre Mine is challenging, dark and cold. But divers who are confident in their buoyancy shouldn’t shy away because there are several pleasant constants: The water temperature is 58 degrees Fahrenheit, the air temp is 62 degrees, and there is no current. For a diver, this is a unique experience.
And if the sights and sounds aren’t enough, the memories should be. Bonne Terre Mine senior dive guide Katy Morgan leads groups through the trails. Talk to her, and she might share how much meaning the mine has to her personally.
Katy’s grandfather, William Floyd Limbaugh, was a miner, and he died as a result of bronchial cancer. As a nonsmoker, his illness “almost certainly came of dust and dampness,” she says.
Her uncle, Earl B. Limbaugh, survived four years in the Merchant Marines during World War II before coming to work in the mine. Human error led to his death when he was hit by an ore cart.
“His passing left a wife and son, Ted, who is a diving instructor living in Florida,” Katy says. “Ted came to the mine once years ago, and we were able to dive together. Sharing the mine with him in the water is a very special memory for me.”
Stories like these can be found behind every pillar and in every cart. And lucky for us, all it takes to uncover some of these details is a keen eye underwater and a desire to learn from experienced dive leaders.
And after exploring here, you’ll likely have a few stories of your own to tell.
Divers ascend steps miners would have used daily to descend into the mine.
ONCE PART OF MISSOURI’S LEAD BELT, THE MINE IS NOW A UNIQUE ATTRACTION FOR SCUBA DIVERS
Clockwise: The mine’s dive dock; one of the many ore carts; packing from disintegrated dynamite crates clings to an overhang.