Good Earth: Exploring Missouri’s Old Lead Belt

Figure 1. Park Hills, Missouri, 120 Buckley Street. The entire street borders the Desloge Chat Pile, which has been remediated by the Environmental Protection Agency and partially transformed into an industrial park. Chat piles are collections of mine tailings, the material leftover once lead is separated from the mined ore that is brought to the surface. They are similar in texture to thick sand. In high winds or heavy rains, chat piles are extremely susceptible to erosion, making them the leading cause of contamination in the area. Chat contains high levels of lead as well as toxic residue from the numerous other chemicals used throughout the mining process. Before these contamination risks were completely understood, chat piles in the Old Lead Belt were recreation destinations for community members. They were used for Boy Scout hikes and campouts, as sites for dirt bike and jeep expeditions and as sandboxes.

Article and Photos by Benjamin Hoste / 07.12.2016
Non-Fiction Photographer

Lead mining in southeast Missouri is more than just an industry. It is an ingrained and defning aspect of the environment and community. In 1719, when French explorer Philip Francois Renault discovered high concentrations of lead in the region, he was unaware that he had stumbled across the largest lead deposit in the world. One year later, extraction of lead ore commenced. Mining projects have continued unabated for nearly three centuries, thereby situating lead extraction as a powerful force that has shaped and defined this region of the United States.

Figure 2. Cassandra Benton, age 22, with her daughter Joslyn Soltys, age 4, and their two dogs, Molly and Buddy. Joslyn recently tested at more than three times the allowable limit set by the CDC for blood-lead levels in children. As a result, the Doe Run Company is remediating the family’s yard. Cassandra believes that the contamination most likely washed onto the lawn via the creek that runs alongside her house and was tracked into her home by her dogs. Children are especially susceptible to lead poisoning due to their hand-to-mouth behavior, and high blood-lead levels can greatly a effect their rapidly developing brains.

The area known as the Old Lead Belt, just an hour’s drive southwest of St. Louis, is marked by the legacy of the mining industry. Between 1864 and 1972, this region became an important site for the development and adoption of industrial mining techniques that allowed this industry to expand its reach from simple surface-level mines to mines that reached hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface. During this 108-year period, an estimated 8.5 million tons of elemental lead were extracted from the Old Lead Belt, producing close to 250 million tons of contaminated mine tailings. Deposited in expansive tailing ponds or heaped into mounds known as “chat piles,” this toxic mine debris grew to hundreds of feet tall and dominated the area’s flat skyline, where it still stands and can be seen today.

Figure 3. Flat River Movies on Main Street in downtown Park Hills, Missouri. Like many local businesses in the region, the theater has not been able to keep its doors open. More than 20 percent of the population in this region live below the poverty line; unemployment spiked to ten percent in February 2014. Residents frequently voiced concern about a lack of living-wage jobs in the area.

Numerous mining ventures operated concurrently when extraction first began in the Old Lead Belt. Within a relatively short period, however, the St. Joe Lead Company came to acquire and control all mining interests. In addition to overseeing lead extraction, the company assumed the local provision of electricity and water, operated its own dairy and beef herds and owned local grocery and general stores. As a consequence, the region quickly became in effect a company town. When the mining industry disappeared in 1972, the power and influence of lead extraction quickly dissipated, leaving behind a handful of communities that had never known life and livelihood not shaped by mining interests.

Figure 4. Main Street in downtown Bonne Terre, Missouri. Summer’s Prom & Bridal Boutique is one of the few local businesses still operating in a downtown where vacant storefronts outnumber active enterprises. New and active businesses line the highway that cuts through the Old Lead Belt. Downtown business districts created during the lead-mining boom now feel like ghost towns.

This visual essay is part of a more extensive documentary research project in which I explore how the legacy of lead mining has shaped communities in the Old Lead Belt. I also attend to how these com- munities define themselves today, in the absence of this extractive industry. Combining photographic exploration and in-depth interviews with community members — the majority of whom have direct familial ties to the local mining practices — I attempt to make visible the complex relationships between inhabitants and their surrounding landscape, between workers and the once-omnipresent St. Joe Lead Company, and between community members and forms of everyday life that have emerged in the absence of this dominant industry.

Figure 5. Best friends Calin Brown and Courtney Shelton, both age 18, sit at the edge of the Mississippi River in Herculaneum, Missouri, just 30 miles north of the Old Lead Belt. Calin and Courtney graduated from high school in 2013 and said they visit the river when they are worried or stressed. The only remaining primary lead smelter in the United States is located adjacent to the Mississippi River in Herculaneum. It has operated nearly continuously since its construction in 1892. In 2002, the Doe Run Company was forced to buy out more than 150 homes possibly affected by lead contamination. On December 31, 2013, the Doe Run Company was forced to shut down the smelter due to countless environmental, health and safety violations. Now all lead ore concentrate is shipped overseas for smelting.

During my conversations with community members, many described an overwhelming pride in the legacy of the lead-mining industry. This sense of connection — the way individuals often grounded their identity in relation to lead extraction — was remarkably, resiliently present throughout the Old Lead Belt. Many of my interview subjects, most of whom claimed a direct familial connection to the lead-extraction industry, often referenced a heritage that was shared by those living in the region. They spoke sentimentally, romantically even, about the Old Lead Belt legacy. However, for those who migrated to the area in more recent years, this legacy was described in a way that felt more distanced and paused. A rift divided those whose identity was deeply entangled with mining imaginaries — those who described the legacy of lead extraction as an integral part of the region’s local history — and those who had been affected by the toxic waste that invisibly permeates the landscape.

Figure 6. The Big River intersecting Highway 67 in Bonne Terre, Missouri. The largest river in the area and a Mississippi tributary, Big River is known for its extremely high levels of lead contamination, especially along its floodplain. According to Robert Pavlowsky, a Missouri State University geographer with expertise in geochemistry and geomorphology, Big River is considered the world’s most contaminated river system affected by lead mining. Frequently prone to flash flooding, the river can carry larger, more hazardous lead contamination to the perimeter of the floodplain, thereby polluting the entire surrounding area.

This dichotomy, although subtle at first, was amplified when participants discussed their feelings toward the Environmental Protection Agency’s remediation efforts regarding lead contamination from the remaining mining waste. The participants with lead-mining roots were skeptical of any claim related to lead contamination, while newcomers were more likely to acknowledge the risks posed by lead and therefore value remediation efforts more highly. In the words of a 50-year-old woman from Bonne Terre whose great-great-grandfather emigrated from Germany to work in the lead mines,

Most people, once they find out what it is, are afraid of it. Like they covered it with rock to make it be safe. When if you test us, we’re not like Hercy, those people with the smelter [1]. That was a dangerous situation to those people, but not to us. If you test me I’ve never been high in lead, none of my kids have been high in lead. And then it’s people that do not know the story, do not have the legacy, weren’t exposed to it when it wasn’t covered and they say it’s a dangerous place to live and bring bad publicity to something that is not factual. I don’t like it when people who haven’t lived here say how dangerous it is. We joke, that’s what’s wrong with us, that we have too much lead in our blood. But we’ve grown up here, all my family is here and we’re all fine. It’s not radioactive chemicals or something that we’re exposed to. It’s why we’re here.

Figure 7. Earl Faircloth, age 96. Born and raised in the Old Lead Belt, Earl worked for the St. Joe Lead Company, where he oversaw employee relations for 46 years. After retiring, he gave tours in the defunct Bonne Terre mine for over a decade until he could no longer navigate the stairs that lead down into the pit. The mine was closed in 1962 when there was simply no more lead ore to extract. The larger and adjacent Park Hills mine was mined out and closed a decade later in 1972, marking the end of lead mining in the Old Lead Belt.

By contrast, a single mother whose four-year-old daughter was recently found to have more than triple the acceptable blood-lead level set by the Centers for Disease Control had this to say:

I was completely terrified. I was beyond terrified. I’m very picky on health and to find out that my daughter’s [blood level] was that high, it scared me … And honestly, I told them if they couldn’t get our yard [remediated] soon enough I would probably have to go back to Texas because I was not going to keep her around this area if it was going to be a problem for her health.

Figure 8. Photographs of brothers Fred and Jim McDaniel hang on a wall in Fred’s home, Bonne Terre, Missouri. The son of a miner who worked at the Bonne Terre lead mine until its closure in 1962, Fred is now retired. In 1965, his brother Jim was killed in an automobile accident during his commute to St. Louis, where he worked at McDonald Douglass building space capsules used in Apollo missions. Although Fred lived most of his adult life away from the Old Lead Belt, he decided to retire to the small mining town where he was raised.

I found that those with lead-mining roots continue to hold some level of loyalty to the industry. For these individuals, the heritage of lead mining plays a role in their personal and communal identity. Thus the government’s remediation efforts are seen as something of a personal attack on both their families and their way of life. Once the global epicenter of lead mining, the region now faces a bleak economy. This makes leaving the legacy behind and moving forward even more challenging. By contrast, those with whom I spoke who do not have mining roots hold no loyalty to the industry and may see remediation as necessary to protecting their own way of life. The community sits at a threshold in time; there are miners still alive who worked in the lead mines when the industry was flourishing, and there are many descendants of those miners who remember when the mines were active. This living heritage is part of the cultural memory of the Old Lead Belt. Weaving together images and words, this visual essay explores the tensions between community memories about an industry that was key to the region’s development and how the effects of lead extraction continue to touch and shape residents’ everyday lives.

Figure 9. Missouri Mines State Historic Site Museum, Park Hills, Missouri. A display case narrates how companies drilled exploratory shafts to locate pockets of lead ore. The museum is housed in what was once a mining powerhouse located adjacent to the original mill where lead ore was extracted and transformed into lead concentrate. This chemical process produced highly toxic mine tailings. The museum is an important local heritage site that connects new and future generations to the region’s long legacy of lead-mining practices through its collection of original mining structures and educational displays.

Figure 10. Jesse Holloway, age 23, Park Hills, Missouri. Jesse replacing the constant-velocity axel on his Ford escort. Carpooling with a neighbor, Holloway makes a 150-mile round trip to St. Louis during the week to work in a welding fabrication shop. He explained, “There’s no real jobs around here.”

Figure 11. Faith Cowboy Church, Desloge, Missouri. The Faith Cowboy Church is housed in a retrofitted livestock facility. Christian “cowboy churches” are popular across Missouri and the Midwest, each featuring its own special blend of worship, community and western lifestyle. As part of the Bible Belt, Missouri has a very strong Christian presence, and the Old Lead Belt is no exception.

Figure 12. Joe Clark, Park Hills, Missouri. Joe Clark recently started working at Scrap Solutions, where he recycles a variety of metal materials, including lead. More than 98 percent of lead material — mostly residue from lead-acid batteries — is recycled worldwide, making it the most frequently recycled form of metal. Its toxicity presents a significant danger to people and the environment. Laws governing the disposal of lead-acid batteries and the high value of this particular metal make recycling a profitable endeavor.

Figure 13. Thomas Donaldson, age 13, and Dalton Clubs, age 14, at a rodeo in Desloge, Missouri. Dalton often competes in peewee bull-riding competitions at local rodeos. Although only an hour from St. Louis, the Old Lead Belt is a semirural community where farming is omnipresent and rodeos are frequent community events. Due to widespread contamination in the area, children such as Dalton are regularly tested by the state to measure and control their blood-lead levels. As a result, the area’s youth are acutely aware of the mining legacy that permeates their landscape.

Figure 14. Women’s sitting room at the Shared Blessings homeless shelter in Bonne Terre, Missouri. A homeless shelter supported entirely from private donations, Shared Blessings assists individuals escaping domestic abuse as well as those disconnected from familial support networks. Opened in 2008, the shelter has 40 beds.

Figure 15. Abbey Hartman, the day after her 31st birthday in Bonne Terre, Missouri. Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, Abbey struggled with alcohol addiction that left her homeless. She ended up in Missouri while working for a traveling carnival. After a detoxification program in Farmington, Missouri, she began living at Shared Blessings and landed a job at the Monterey Mushroom Canning Plant in Bonne Terre. When this photo was taken, she had been sober for just over a month and was optimistic about her future. “Instead of sitting here and being filled with anxiety, I’m filled with hope,” she said. “Once I got here, I knew I wasn’t leaving. I was home.”

Figure 16. Mining shaft in St. Joe State Park, Missouri. Mineshaft #25 is located on an 8,234-acre plot of land that was donated to the state by the St. Joe Lead Company in 1976 and subsequently became a state park. More than a fourth of the park is covered in highly contaminated mine tailings. Sealed and abandoned, the shaft once ferried miners hundreds of feet below ground. As the underground mining system grew more complex, all shafts and pits were connected to form a single, unified mine. Lead ore was shuttled to the surface via more than 240 miles of electric rail line. A handful of abandoned mine shafts remain in areas visible to the public. These shafts and the remediated chat piles that extend through the landscape are the only physical reminders of the mining industry that dominated the Old Lead Belt for more than 100 years.


Photos by Benjamin Hoste.

[1] The Herculaneum lead smelter was built in 1892 and was shut down on December 31, 2013, due to decades of extensive lead pollution in the area and a refusal on the part of Doe Run, the present-day lead company operating in Missouri, to install pollution controls. Prior to its closure, in 2002, Doe Run bought out 160 homes in Herculaneum’s historic downtown area and demolished them as a result of extensive lead contamination from the smelter, essentially destroying the entire historic downtown district. At the time of its closure, the Herculaneum smelter was the last remaining primary smelter in the United States. Today all lead mined in the United States must be shipped overseas to be smelted and refined into pure, elemental lead.

Benjamin Hoste is a non fiction photographer based in New York. Hoste holds an undergraduate degree in mathematics from the Claremont Colleges and a Master of Arts in journalism from the University of Missouri. His personal work is driven by a profound interest in identity — be it collective or individual — and how it interrelates with particular geographies. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Der Greif, Pitchfork, The Columbian Missourian, LA Record, and LA Weekly, among others, and is held in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. More information can be found at

Originally published by Anthropology Now under a under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States license.