Good Earth: Missouri's Old Lead Belt

Missouri has the largest known lead deposits in the world and lead mining has operated uninterrupted in Southeast Missouri for over 300 years. Early mining was done mostly on the surface, but eventual advances in technology made industry scale, subterranean mining possible.

A century of mining took place in Missouri’s Old Lead Belt–a rural area about an hour south of St. Louis that includes the towns of Bonne Terre,  Deslodge, Leadwood, Leadington, and Park Hills–before the area was mined out and the mines were shuttered in the early 1970s. It was in the Old Lead Belt that industrial lead mining evolved from hand picks and mule teams to steam powered shovels and electric trains running on hundreds of miles of underground rails. The communities in this area were established and defined by the lead industry, and now 40 years after its disappearance, are struggling to reconcile their past as they are confronted by a much less promising future.

Although lead mining continues in Southeast Missouri about 50 miles west of the Old Lead Belt, the industry has again been radically shifted by technology. Missouri is still the largest producer of lead in the United States, and the U.S. is the third largest producer of lead in the world, but far fewer people are employed by lead mining today than when mining was still occurring in the Old Lead Belt.