Bonne Terre Mine-Underworld Wonderland
Trip Start Aug 08, 2009
5Trip End Aug 19, 2009
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It's 4:30 on Saturday afternoon and I'm on the phone with Doug Goergens. I'm begging.
Doug owns West End Diving in St.Louis and is the visionary who looked at the abandoned St.Joe's Lead Mine in Bonne Terre, MO, 60 miles to the south, and saw a diver's paradise.
When the worlds largest lead mine in Bonne Terre, MO closed down in 1962 after nearly one-hundred years of operation, the miners were understandably pissed. They left their tools and walked out. The company then shut off the pumps that kept the mine dry—and the acres of dug out caverns flooded, turning into the worlds largest underground lake
In 1981, Goergens and his wife Cathy leased the mine--and a decade later opened it up to the public as a tourist attraction and midwestern scuba diving mecca, touting it as the "Billion Gallon Lake Resort."
The site is legendary amongst divers and it's been on my list as a must-stop point during my Dive Across America tour--but there's a problem.
I've stopped at a gas station midway across Missouri and I’ve called West End Diving to tell them I’m hoping to dive the mine Sunday morning.
"That’ won’t be possible," Goergens tells me over the phone. "We just completed our last dives for the weekend. There's no dives and no staff scheduled for tomorrow."
This was my major screw up--I should've called earlier, but I rely on the Internet too much and read the mine was open for diving seven days a week. That's true, Goergens tells me, when there are divers scheduled
Soon, he becomes tired of my whining, puts me on hold calls to his shop at the mine. Ten interminable minutes later he gets back on the line with me. He's found two staff willing to dive with me tomorrow. Now that's customer service. Lesson learned, disaster averted.
Husband and Wife Team
When I arrive at the mine the next morning, I meet Jennifer and John Dwyre , my guide and safety diver for today's dives.They moved here from Syracuse four years ago and work as divemasters at the mine on weekends. They're outgoing and funny and even after 100's of dives in the mine--they seem as excited as I am.
As we gear up-I notice Jennifer is diving a 7mm wetsuit, while John and I are in drysuits. The water is 58 degrees year round, much too cold for me to go wet
"He just doesn't want to invest in another dry suit," she says, laughing.
"Oh honey, come on," he says, "you know I had 500 dives on my wetsuit before we bought this," he says referring to his dry suit.
"Five-hundred dives on a wet suit," I ask, in disbelief.
"Yeah," he says, "it was nothing but lycra by the time I was though with it, holes everywhere."
To get to the dive site, we walk down a winding ramp that Jennifer tells me used to be the mule entrance during the mine's operation. When we get to the entry point--125 feet underground--the temperature underground is at least 10-15 degrees cooler than the surface
Despite the primitive dynamite blasting plunder of the earth's mineral resources here--the mine's evolution from lead to lake--is indeed beautiful. The 17 miles of navigable coastline in the mine and the 24 dive "trails," as they call them, are lit with 500 watts of stadium lighting--giving the whole place a yellowish hue.
The entry point has an underground leads for air and nitrox fill stations--so we don't have to carry our tanks from the surface. Jennifer gives me a dive briefing and we take the plunge. I can feel the cold water on my face as we descend. The edges of the giant earthen pillars, left in place to keep the mine from collapsing, are silhouetted by the stadium lights as we sink below the surface. To me, it has the dreamy quality of diving in a submerged medieval castle.
It's immediately apparent that history will be party of our dive profile. There are picks, shovels and ore carts strewn along the bottom. At one place in the wall--a jackhammer is still embedded, tip burrowed into rock. Apparently the miners simply left their tools and walked out when the company told them the mine was closing--the end of a 100 year era for the town
Though the mine has areas where the depth reaches almost 300 feet, on most of our dives--the ground floor is visible and we maintain a depth between 40-50 feet. There are no thermoclines and in spots where the light is blocked by rock--you feel the comfort of floating in inky silence. The dive operation is very safety conscious--with two specific gas gauge checks scheduled on our dives.
Jennifer and John have dived much of the mine--but they say there's much to be explored--if you find a new room, tunnel or cave--they tell me, you get the privilege of naming it.
Our final dive takes us to a series of steel pillars that used to be the mine's elevator shaft. It provides a fun set of swim throughs which allow you to practice and test your buoyancy skill without touching the metal.
One strange phenomenon is a milky, visible smoke emitted from the broken ends of some metal piping. Jennifer says the cause isn't completely clear--but that it may be a part of the chemical oxidation process. Regardless, it's a stunning site in the beam of our flashlights
Bonne Terre. Not Bonaire
At the end of one of our dives, we're ready to climb onto the exit platform when Jennifer excited points behind me. As I turn--I see a single white, large mouth bass illuminated by the beam of her flashlight. It doesn't move for a moment, then swims slowly toward me as I fumble with my
It seems to me, at that moment, the lonliest fish in the world. And in reality, it probably is. Jennifer tells me, once we're out of the water, they called the fish Bonnie, the only surviving fish from an effort to stock the mine at one time. Perhaps there's too little to eat or too little oxygen in the water, she says, but Bonnie is the last of the line.
The fish is a fitting emphasis of the tradeoff between history and life in these waters. While the mine is a beautiful, life size diorama of what once was—it’s also some of the only water I've ever dived that has been almost completely devoid of life. This is a mine after all. Bonne Terre is definitely not Bonaire.
Eventually, Bonnie swims away into the darkness--destined to live in the vast stillness of this underground history.