Monday, May 11, 2009

Canary in the Mineral Area

The history of St. Louis is built on mounds. Thousands of burial mounds which have not survived modern earth movers littered the area, once giving St. Louis the nickname " Mound City". Many of these mounds are thought to have been built right around 1000 years ago by a network of native americans known as the the Hopewell Culture. Most notable of these are the Cahokia Mounds just east of St. Louis.
The largest Cahokia mound "Monk's Mound" stands 90 meters tall and and is the largest man made earthen mound found anywhere in North America. But, you already know this.

What you might not know about are a network of mounds about 70 miles south of St. Louis. These mounds, it has been fairly well documented, were built starting in the 1860s in southern Missouri towns such as Bonne Terre, Park Hills(Formerly Flat River), and Leadwood. These towns which are perhaps better known as the "Mineral Area" or the "Lead Belt" were once the site of the largest lead mining outfit in history. Lead ore(Galena) was mined from as much as 200 feet down in some places. Leaving vast underground caves, some of which are now tourist destinations, others far too volatile.

Only a small percentage of Gelena is profitible as lead or other metals such zinc or copper. The rest is a refuse known as "chat". Piles of of this white sandy gravel grew as the mines prospered in some places such as Flat Rivers "National Chat Dump" towering over the small town and covering as much as 20 acres.

As the article shows, these piles began a process of re-mining in the 1950s and by the seventies were but a tribute to their former glory. And, by the time that I began seeing them in the 80s and 90s were even smaller. Yet even at this dramaticly smaller size to me and to my friends and family they were still these major landmarks known as the "chat piles".

Once, early in my teens, myself and several of my friends climbed one of these awkward dunes without a desert, making the heroic climb to the top and then inevidible running then falling down the opposite side. By this time they had become a playground for at ATVs. There were rumors that at the top one might happen upon a hidden sink-hole and be sucked down into the sand never to be found again.

The mounds, though picked over for lead and other metals still pollute area rivers and streams, air, and ground to some extent. One study found that 11 percent of children in the area were beyond the level that constitutes lead poisoning which is said to lead to...

"lower intelligence scores, poor attention levels; hearing, speech and language problems; reading

disabilities; reduced motor skills and poor hand-eye coordination."

Now it begins to make some sense.

While I can't help feeling a little romantic about these mining relics, I also feel a bit betrayed. A brief look back puts me living at one point or another in Desloge, Park Hills, Doe Run, and Old Mines, all lead mining sites Old Mines named for being the eldest in Missouri, mined in the 1720s. And once in Pevely which borders the town Herculaneum, the infamous site of the state's smelting facilities, evacuated several years back as lead levels became dangerously high.

As a child no one ever told us this. I really had no idea the mounds had anything to do with mining. I thought it had something to do with the adjacent glass factory, which as it turns out was built to make use of it.

So next time you ask me a question and I sing the answer back to you to the tune of the Gilligan theme, or I say something a little too loud and then repeat it back to myself as I walk away, I'm not trying to be a dick. I've just got enough lead coursing through my veins to make me legally retarded.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think that last paragraph was the funniest thing I've ever read. Last I heard...I believe they wanted to level off the top of one and make a park...I could be wrong...but I could be right.