Diving the Former Mines of Southeast Missouri

scuba diving

Stadium-style lighting in the Bonne Terre Mines dive site makes for fabulous underwater photos.

If you were looking for one of North America’s Top Ten Adventures, where would you look? Probably NOT the little town of Bonne Terre, Missouri, about an hour south of St. Louis.

Not so long ago, National Geographic Magazine called a visit to the little hillside community just that.

Actually, it’s not Bonne Terre, but what is under Bonne Terre. For nearly 90 years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Missouri was the world’s largest producer of lead products. One of the largest mines was in, or in this case, under Bonne Terre.

The lead mines closed in 1962, but removing all of the equipment was considered too expensive, so everything is exactly the way it was when lead miners walked away more than 50 years ago, except that it’s now covered by as much as 350 feet of still water. Visibility is up to 100 feet in most places, enhanced by football stadium-style lighting in the underground caverns.

And that makes for a scuba diving experience like few others in the world.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • There are only so many beautiful fish in the ocean.
  • You like off-the-grid experiences.
  • If it was good enough for Jacques Cousteau…

Jacques Cousteau Dives Bonne Terre

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Divers ready for the mine diving experience.

Following a trip up the Mississippi River in 1982, Jacques Cousteau planned to spend a day in the Bonne Terre mine. Five days and a dozen or more dives later, the great Jacques Cousteau and his film crew had to move on to other scheduled activities, but were thoroughly impressed with his Missouri dive experience.

Film director James Cameron was equally impressed: a few scenes from his 1989 movie “The Abyss,” were shot here. When you see Ed Harris tumble over and over again into the abyss, slow the movie down and look closely at the walls. Those are dynamite shafts drilled by the miners.

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Divers check out an abandoned ore cart in the Bonne Terre mines.

The temperature in the mines is a constant 58 degrees, so wet suits are required for the 45 minute dive. There are about 50 dive trails in three levels of the old mines, each one a little more advanced than the last.There are 17 miles of navigable shoreline and a dive platform. With ore carts, tracks and unusual mining equipment left in place, it’s a National Historic Landmark — and not your typical dive site.

It’s great diving, but it’s also a great lesson in Missouri history,” said dive shop manager Mack Epps. Epps’ favorite place in the mine is the underwater lake, which is considered the world’s largest underground man-made lake.

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A diver explores the submerged mines in Bonne Terre Missouri. Photo courtesy of Bonne Terre Mines.

Don’t dive? That’s all right. Walking tours are offered of the first two levels, but take note – you must go up and down 65 stairs on a ladder. Or take a boat out on the world’s largest underground lake. No flattering wet suits or scuba skills required.

Practicalities

  • Bonne Terre Mine Tours/West End Diving: 888-843-3483
  • Lodging packages are available at the 1909 Depot Bed and Breakfast, operated by the Bonne Terre Mines.
  • Dives are available only on weekends.
  • St. Louis’ Lambert Field is the closest airport, about 90 minutes north of Bonne Terre.
  • The Missouri Mines State Historic Site is in the nearby community of Park Hills.

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