After seeing my Dad receive his Golden Alumni regalia last Wednesday morning, Isaac and I set out for the serious driving part of the trip, a couple of hundred miles back and forth across the Ozarks. Isaac just likes roads he has never been on before, but I was on mission to take in some lead mines.
I have long been fascinated by the Lead Rush that took place in the mid-Mississippi Valley in the early 19th century. I gather there were actually several of these, and what interested me about them (besides the fact that such a thing could exist) was their total lack of Gold Rush-style romance. The early lead mines, which were worked by the French and Indians before the Usonians (U.S. Americans) came along, were known as “diggings” because they involved scraping around the surface for chunks of promising earth and then heating them to melt and extract the lead. Lead was valued for ammunition-making and various other industrial purposes, but it does not seem to have been valued all that much. Lead mines were more a case of scratching out some moderate prosperity than striking it rich.
The Lead Rushes brought out a rather eclectic set of hard-up entrepreneurs. Alexander Hamilton’s son William ended up out in Wisconsin Territory; they called him “Uncle Billy” in the squalid encampment where he and his rather dodgy crew of workers lived. Somehow I don’t think anyone who worked for William Hamilton’s father was in the habit of calling him “Cousin Al,” but I guess you never know. [See Juliette Kinzie's memoir of life as an Indian agent's wife on the Wisconsin frontier for a sad vignette of the downwardly mobile life of the upwardly mobile Founder's son.]
The Missouri lead belt attracted a Connecticut Yankee named Moses Austin whose previous bid for moderate success had been roofing the state capitol and mining the lead for it in Virginia. When the Virginia venture faltered, Moses initiated a family tradition of entrepreneurial expatriation, gaining the lead-mining concession in Spanish Louisiana and heading out for foreign territory where relatively few Anglo-Americans had yet ventured, at least with anything other than hunting or the Indian trade in mind. Austin did well enough to build himself a short-lived lead-mining empire, including a mansion called Durham Hall and the ambitiously named town of Potosi, after the silver mines that funded the Spanish Empire. Henry R. Schoolcraft’s View of the Lead Mines of Missouri will fill you in on the all the opportunities Austin was trying to seize.
While it’s not clear that Moses Austin was ever truly secure in Missouri, U.S. control of the area brought trouble for him. The Missouri lead business was ironically devastated by the coming of the War of 1812, and Austin’s control of his little empire, and his manhood, were challenged by the vicious competition and just plain bullying of heavily armed migrants from the U.S. South led by one John Smith T (for Tennessee, from which he hailed). Smith T was believed to have killed some 15 men on the field of “honor” and otherwise. Though intimidation, legal chicanery, and some outright theft and violence, Smith T tried to take Austin’s land titles, frighten off his workers, and seize the Austin holdings for himself. Austin was not precisely defeated by Smith T, but by the end of his life he had largely given up the Missouri venture and turned his attention toward a new expatriation scheme in Mexico’s northernmost provinces, which his son Stephen would be the one to carry out. Moses Austin’s whole Missouri story reads kind of like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance if the John Wayne and Lee Marvin characters had joined forces to wipe out Jimmy Stewart and take the town for themselves, civilization be damned. To put it another way, Moses Austin needed John Wayne for a neighbor and got Lee Marvin instead.
Since Potosi was sadly devoid of overt Moses Austin shrines, we continued east to Missouri Mines State Historic Site in Park Hills, MO. The museum is located in an impressively nasty-looking old lead mill sitting on a top of a mine and amidst some hills that appeared to be giant piles of mine waste. After a lifetime of consciousness raising on the dangers of lead paint, Isaac handled the omnipresence of the feared substance pretty well, with a lot of discussion on my part about how spending a few hours in an old lead mine as a 15-year-old (on a rainy day) was not the same thing as ingesting refined lead over a long period of time as a toddler. Nevertheless, at one point during our tour, Ike blurted out, “I think can feel the effects [of lead poisoning] already.” Ah, the safety-conscious youth of today.
Unfortunately, Missouri Mines State Historic Site did not really address my lead belt western scenario. I did learn that I did not know much about “modern” lead mining. The diggings of Moses Austin’s day stopped at the bedrock. Around the time of the Civil War, the lead industry turned to deep rock mining, punching thousands of miles of tunnels as much as 400 feet deep into the Earth. By World War II, the main method of getting men in and ore out was an electric railroad system — the main line was 300 miles along at just this one site. Before that, the ore cars were pulled by good-old fashioned Missouri mules. I must say that the only thing worse than eating lead dust all day would be mixing it with the aroma of mule crap, but apparently the work paid well by Ozark standards. The long distances that the miners had to travel underground to reach the ore seems to have led the St. Joseph Lead Co. to create a task-based wage system I had not heard of. Every miner had to dig out a quota or “score” of a certain number of tons of ore each day to earn their pay, after which they could go home or stay and earn extra.
The museum displays and our docent were quite insistent that lead poisoning or other health effects had not been a problem in the area, though they did admit that smelting plants could cause problems. You hope they are right for the sake of the Lead Belt’s population, because lead was and possibly still is literally a part of growing up there. Check out “Chat Dumps of St. Francois County” for pictures of children playing, Boy Scouts hiking, and town Christmas trees standing on the gigantic piles of mine waste (chat) that once loomed larger over the towns of the Lead Belt than the surrounding Ozark hills.
Finally, coming home from the Lead Belt on U.S. 50, we went through one of Missouri’s many strangely named burgs. The state has a quite a line in misspelled and/or mispronounced foreign capitals, but perhaps more distinctively, there are several towns named after qualities that their founders presumably prized or thought their settlements embodied. Economy and Peculiar are two we had noticed before, but Useful, MO, was new to us. I started laughing and immediately made the comment that I hoped there was a Useful Cemetery. Lo and behold, it immediately appeared. I was driving too fast to stop without needing to use the cemetery ourselves, but I also knew that someone must have put such a sight on the Internet already. I was not wrong. (Click the picture for an even artier one.)
Now playing: Whiskeytown – Mining Town