Located just an hour south of St. Louis, the mine is a popular draw for both families looking for an out-of-the-ordinary daytrip and for underwater adventurers keen on plumbing the depths of the mine's clear water caverns.
The Bonne Terre Mine functioned as an active lead mine for nearly a century before shuttering in 1961. It didn't sit dormant for long. In 1968, a group reopened the mine to allow locals and tourists to see what lay beneath the town. In 1981, the mine found a whole new audience when its lower caverns – now submerged in spring water – were opened to scuba divers.
In the decades since, the mine has continued to cater to two very different audiences. Families and school groups visit the mine to explore its uppermost caverns and learn about the mining operations that took place there. Divers prefer the lower caverns where they can explore the world's largest freshwater dive resort and enjoy 100-foot visibility.
Those in the former group can enjoy a one-hour walking tour through huge caverns where miners and mules once worked in dangerous conditions to haul lead to the surface. Used tools ranging from scaffolding and shovels to mule harnesses and rakes, litter the mine's floor. Guides inform visitors about the difficulties the miners faced in their work, thanks in large part to the primitive tools they used.
Equally fascinating is the grip that Mother Nature now exerts over the mine. Although the "cave" is man-made, over the years it has begun to take on attributes of natural caverns. The presence of minerals such as cobalt, copper, calcium, iron and manganese has resulted in brilliant colorations on the walls of the mine. Elsewhere, tiny stalactites have begun to form.
Following the walking tour, visitors have the option of taking a brief boat tour wherein they can peer deep into the abyss of the lower caverns, enjoying a look at additional wall and ceiling formations, and evidence of earlier mine operations. Scuba divers occasionally surface from the depths as the boat winds its way through the caverns.
Those with extreme claustrophobia or fear of caves may find a visit to the mine disquieting, but most visitors will have no complaints; the caverns are huge and are lit by more than 500,000 watts of light.
The floors and walls are damp and slick in places, so parents with small kids would be advised to hold their youngsters' hands, especially during the descent. The climb back out of the cave is a bit steep, but most visitors will find it more invigorating than exhausting.
Winter hours – which run from November through April – find the mine open for walking and boat tours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays with tours offered hourly. From May through October, tours are offered daily.
Walking tours are $10 for children under 11 and $19 for adults. A combined boat and walking tour is $25 for visitors of all ages. Discounted rates are available to groups of 20 or more visitors.
Bonne Terre Mine
Hwy 47 & Allen St.
Bonne Terre, MO 63628
All photos are courtesy of Bonne Terre Mine and taken by D Goergens, West End Diving.