Dis­cover PNG’S in­sane viz and abun­dant ev­ery­thing; think you could dive for 17 miles? At Bonne Terre Mine, you can find out; spend a long week­end in care­free Cozumel.

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.

Clock­wise: The mine’s dive dock; one of the many ore carts; pack­ing from dis­in­te­grated dy­na­mite crates clings to an over­hang.

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