Bonne Terre Mine, Missouri -- 2/97

When Jeff and Danny of West End Diving promised me spectacular diving, I couldn't have imagined just how wonderful it would really be. We descended into the crystal clear fresh water a short way from the underground dock and followed a submerged flight of stairs to The Keyhole. Passing through this opening in the wall, we entered one of the stadium sized caverns carved by the miners in their quest to make their daily quota of lead ore. Swimming through chutes and rooms scattered with railroad tracks and ore carts, we came to a rectangular opening under an overhang where our trapped exhaust bubbles ran across the ceiling like so much mercury. As we approached the edge of a sheer 90 degree drop-off, we lay on our stomachs and looked down out over the cavernous Ladder Room. Bonne Terre Mine

From this window vantage point, the ceiling appeared 50 feet over us, though the clarity of water skewed my perspective for distance. Massive pillars carved from the bedrock to support the mine's ceiling dropped out of sight to the floor below. Steel structures, ladders and other apparatus used by miners long forgotten clung precariously to the walls, reminding me I was immersed in the history of an immense human achievement. The filtered light from a string of sodium lamps suspended above the water's surface created a mystical ambient light with dramatic shadows and dancing light beams. I lay there, awestruck by the scene and felt a sense of excitement similar to when I first discovered the underwater world of scuba diving. My dive to the Ladder Room was just one of the soul touching moments I experienced during my weekend of Deep Earth Diving at the Bonne Terre Mine.

The lead mine was worked for almost 100 years by the St. Joe Lead Company until 1960 when the demand for lead dwindled and the mine finally closed in 1962. When the mine was abandoned, the pumps that kept it dry were turned off. Over the years, fresh groundwater seeped into the mine, not only filling this man-made wonder, but covering forever the tools and equipment left behind by the discouraged miners. After nearly a century of continuous operation, they were suddenly without the livelihood they had come to depend on. Doug and Cathy Goergens first dove the mine in 1978 and certain they had found something special, managed to acquire the rights to it in 1981. Starting with cave lights and reel lines, they have developed it into one of the most unique dive locations in the world.

Despite its beauty, crystal clear water and constant conditions, Bonne Terre Mine still remains virtually unknown to the international dive community. It offers divers who have "been there and done that" something truly different. Though primarily dove by local divers seeking alternatives to murky mid-west lake waters and cold winters, it is sure to soon be recognized as the world class dive attraction it is and undoubtedly will become a mecca for adventurous divers.

Accommodations offered by Doug and Cathy Goergens are no less unique. A renovated railroad depot has been converted to a quaint bed and breakfast with reasonably priced rooms. Several railroad cars and a train caboose next to the historic Depot have been outfitted with very comfortable furnishings, rivaling the best accommodations in town for those divers lucky enough to reserve one.

Deep Earth Diving, a phrase coined for the mine, is very safe for the divers of all skill levels thanks to the procedures established by Doug and fun due to the exceptional dive staff who assure divers are comfortable. Divers new to the mine are given an extensive briefing before descent into the mine. In fact, the mine is the first choice for divers in the area seeking their open water certification thanks to the predicable conditions.

The underground air temperature is a constant and comfortable 62 degrees and the water temperature, 58. Visibility exceeds 100 feet! There are no thermoclines, currents or surge. The water is so still, that unless disturbed by a fin kick, one can actually observe rust plumes suspended above the iron tools left behind decades ago as they slowly oxidize. Dives are never postponed or canceled due to weather or water conditions.

The mine is entered through a surprisingly small surface building that served as the old mule entrance. For mules taken to work in the mine, it was a one way trip as the mine had all the facilities of a small city including a livery. The quarter mile trek down to the subterranean dive dock is an awesome precursor of the adventure to come. The constant drip of water throughout the mine reminding you of your presence deep below the earth's surface and the preparation of excited divers are the only sounds breaking the serenity of the scene. Dramatic lighting throughout the mapped portion of the mine adds to the excitement and mystery as anticipation for the dive builds. At the dive dock, Bones the dock master, keeps things running smoothly and silently fills tanks for the next dive from a compressor located at the earth's surface many feet above.

A giant stride from the dock into the pristine fresh water is followed by a short swim to a 25 foot floor where buoyancy and basic skills are confirmed. Then its off to tour the mine where starbursts of rainbowed light filter down and play upon the massive bedrock pillars supporting the ceiling of each cavernous room.

Divers come upon the many hand tools of the trade as well as ore carts, railroad tracks, dynamite boxes, even a timekeeper's shack and a steam locomotive! Brilliant white calcium deposits and natural veins of lead, quartz, cobalt, and other minerals further enhance the natural beauty of the scene. The mine is made up of 1500 stadium sized rooms covering 80 square miles and linked together on five levels by a series of chutes, passageways and ore dumps. The Billion Gallon Lake as it is often referred to, has 17 miles of underground shoreline.

The highly experienced divemasters lead groups of eight through a maze of 24 mapped trails with uncanny accuracy. A safety diver trails the group and a chase kayak follows above, guided not only by the bubbles at the surface but the sight of the divers 60 feet below. Each of the many trails led by Doug's staff offer different vantages of the mine and artifacts to examine. The topography accented by the lighting is nothing short of stunning. Around each corner and upon exit of each passageway is another breathtaking sight. Viewing the magnitude of what was accomplished by a century's work of an army of miners and discovering long forgotten equipment and structures stimulates vivid images of a time long past.

Dives are separated by a three hour surface interval and trip back to the world of daylight above where locker facilities, the Deep Earth Diver dive shop and another briefing await.

Bonne Terre Mine Facts
Bonne Terre, Missouri (pop 3,871) is approx. 60 miles south of St. Louis
The Mine covers 80 square miles on five levels
Air temperature - 62 degrees
Water temperature - 58 degrees
Mine depth 365 feet
Visibility 100 feet plus
24 established trails offer diversity and variety
Explored and filmed by Jacques Cousteau
Operated by the St. Joe Lead Company from 1867 to 1962
World Wide Web Site
Operated by West End Diving, St. Louis (314) 731-5003

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1997 John Petrak