Like space travel, nuclear fission or dropping acid, scuba diving is an unnatural adventure, something people feel compelled to do despite the violation of nature's strictest laws. Humans were no more meant to pal about with the manta and the anemone than blowfish were meant to busk on Delmar.
Scuba diving at the Bonne Terre Mines is a different story. Sixty miles south of St. Louis, at the buckle of Missouri's Lead Belt, 150 feet below the earth, the largest underground lake in the world curves along 17 miles of shoreline and plunges to 370 feet, though no one has reached the bottom. Until the decline of lead prices shut operations down in 1961, some 5,000 miners daily descended the elevators and mule trails to work here for a few dollars a day. They hung from trapezes, drilled with diamond bits, operated huge pumps to keep the mine from flooding and detonated dynamite to build 35 square miles of chambers and pillars, like some cross between a mammoth catacomb, a petrified forest and Arches National Park. Archival footage shot by the Bureau of the Interior in the '50s shows miners riding electric trains through black tunnels, hacking at the limestone with picks and shovels, manning gigantic backhoe-style loaders, and applauding and cheering in an underground cinema. The voice-over to the footage reminds viewers that every miner is a U.S. citizen. In August 1917, it might be remembered, those citizens rioted through the "foreign settlements," herding some 500 Hungarian miners and their families onto a one-way train to St. Louis.
The history of Bonne Terre begins with the French. In 1720, Renault brought slaves from Santo Domingo to explore the mineral wealth along the Mississippi River. Freelance and organized mining boomed, and in 1846 the New York-based St. Joseph Lead Co. got wind of the rich lead veins and purchased 946 acres in and around St. Francois County. The pyramidlike mounds of chat -- the limestone deposits left after lead is extracted -- still peek over the treelines of Bonne Terre. The town is now little more than a drowsy gas-station wayside along Highway 67.
From the outside, Bonne Terre Mines looks like a typical Midwestern tourist trap. "See the Billion Gallon Lake!" one sign reads. "See the Underground Garden!" Inside the gate, the grounds are preserved as a frontier town, whose central building is the old mule entrance to the pit. If you're not here to dive, the walking tour will take you down some 65 steps, lit by sulfur lamps, into the mine's only dry terrain. Like a natural cave, the temperature is 62 degrees year round and the humidity constant at 90 percent. You can spring for the pontoon-boat tour of the lake, or, if you're scuba-certified, you can go deeper.
The origin of the underground lake is fairly simple. Because the mines were dug out of solid rock, water has, over the years, percolated in from springs and dripped down though the dolomite, submerging the underworld where workers once labored in darkness. Doug Goergens, owner of West End Diving & Aquatic Center in Bridgeton (11215 Natural Bridge Rd., 314-731-5003), would bring his gear down in the early '70s and dive for kicks. No one guessed Bonne Terre would become the best inland diving in the country, if not the world. "Inland diving in the U.S. is limited," Goergens says. "Around St. Louis, it's very hard to certify your students. My wife kept saying, 'We gotta go look at this mine.' She kept prodding me, and I finally went back and said, 'Yeah, we can do this.'" The mines were legally acquired by the Goergenses in the late '70s from the St. Joseph Lead Co. "The feasibility study took a year, and we eventually put about seven figures into developing the mines for diving."
The Goergenses officially opened the mine to diving in 1981. They offer weekend packages, complete with bed-and-breakfast at a restored mansion, a turn-of-the-century depot and a remodeled caboose. They have classes for beginners and advanced trails for the 15,000 divers who travel here every year. "Cousteau came down in '83," Goergens says, "and that vaulted the whole thing through the roof. Now we're a major diving attraction. The numbers we attract are the numbers you find in Florida and Belize."
Ocean diving, however, doesn't compare to Bonne Terre. The lake has no animal or plant life -- though tiny shrimp have been found feeding on an abandoned newspaper -- but it is currentless and clear, with visibility, aided by 500,000 watts of strung lighting, reaching up to 100 feet. "You're in the birthplace of H2O," Goergens says. "You're seeing water being born. You're basically diving in Perrier."
But it's the contact with the mining history, 40, 50, 60 feet underwater, that fascinates. Each dive is done in groups of nine or so, with at least one lead guide and two more bringing up the rear. Submersion sends you down into the 58-degree water, and the still blue vacuum of the water feels like an illuminated tomb. It's an undeniably beautiful and dreamlike death. White and black calcium carbide formations spill down from the limestone walls, cliffs appear, and you drift slowly over them, then down like a disembodied spirit, to a miner's drill frozen like a sword in a stone wall. There are train tracks, an ore cart with a pick, a rusting shovel, the timekeeper's shack, a toppled train engine, a towering grid of steel called "the Structure" that was once the main elevator shaft. You float through a short tunnel, and above you bubbles quiver and rush in a reverse waterfall of trapped air. In the distance, other divers hover like neon butterflies in water as uniformly clear as the Clayton pool. You hear, of course, nothing but your own breathing.
Diving in an abandoned lead mine may seem like a madder version of spelunking. It's not. "There was no blueprint on how to operate anything like this," Goergens says. "We developed the standards for operating the mines, and those standards have been adopted worldwide by other dive resorts. We're ranked as the safest scuba-diving operation in the world. We supply personnel to run these trips. Most dive places throw you in the water -- maybe with one other diver, maybe not. Our average staff person has to go through a year of courses to work down in the mine." National Geographic may have picked Goergens' resort as one of the Top 10 adventures in the U.S., but anyone with the an interest in diving will find a patient, professional and warm staff, who never take unnecessary risks and who know the mines as well as the men who carved them out of the stone. The curious can take a virtual plunge at www.2dive.com or visit West End Diving out on Natural Bridge Road. Best, though, to make the hour drive south to Bonne Terre and take the walking tour yourself. Beats Rock City and the Mystery Hole.
-- Roy Kasten
© 2017 Riverfront Times