FEATURES

 

Dig This
Published:
Jul/Aug 2004


Before You Go
For more information, contact:

• Joplin Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-657-2534 or www.joplincvb
.com;

• Everett J. Ritchie Tri-State Mineral Museum, (417) 623-1180, www.joplinmuseum.org;

• Galena Mining and Historical Museum, (620) 783-2192;

• Baxter Springs Heritage Center and Museum (620) 856-2385, http://home.4
state.com/~heritagectr/;

• Big Brutus, (620) 827-6177, www.big
brutus.org;

• Picher Mining Field Museum, (918) 673-1414;

• Dodson Museum and Memorial Center, (918) 542-5388 or (918) 542-5297;

• Miami, Okla., Convention and Visitors Bureau, (918) 542-4481.

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks and TourBook guides. View a list of offices.

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Museums and monuments help travelers to
remember the men who made
Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma
the largest lead and zinc mining area.
By Larry Wood

ack Green, who toiled in the lead and zinc mines of the tri-state border region of Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma during the 1940s, remembers the backbreaking labor as though it were yesterday. He can still recall the grimy faces of his fellow miners, the smell of rock dust and well-oiled machines.

“It was hard work,” he says.

It’s been nearly 50 years since the last mine closed, and the boom days when the tri-state area was the largest lead and zinc mining district in the world are scarcely a memory. Chat piles and other telltale signs of the area’s mining heritage are gradually disappearing from the landscape because of environmental clean-up efforts. Many of the region’s 80-plus mining camps, if they exist at all, are ghost towns.

However, you can still experience the rich history of the Tri-State District through a treasure of museums and monuments that celebrate the area’s mining legacy. Sometimes called the Joplin Mining District, the region covers parts of three states, but it is compact enough that you can visit most of the sites in a day’s time.

Show me Missouri

Lead mining began in southwest Missouri before the Civil War at places like Granby and Oronogo. Originally called Minersville, the latter town saw its name change when a local merchant, accustomed to bartering in minerals, refused to extend credit to a customer. “It’s ore or no go,” he announced and the name stuck.

After decades of decline, Oronogo, 10 miles north of Joplin, has made a comeback in recent years, while Granby, 15 miles southeast of Joplin, has remained a thriving little town throughout its history.

After the Civil War, mining resumed in earnest as new ore deposits were discovered. Entrepreneurs, laborers and assorted adventurers thronged to the area. Joplin was incorporated in 1873 and other mining camps soon followed. Many of the camps took mining-related names like Blende City, Klondike and Prosperity, while others, like Joplin and Webb City, drew their names from prominent individuals.

Of the mining camps, only Joplin grew into a metropolitan area. Larger towns engulfed some of the other camps. Blende City), for example, exists today as a Joplin neighborhood. Others, like Klondike, are merely wide places in the road and may not even appear on most maps. A few, like Webb City, prosper alongside Joplin as vital communities that have learned to survive without the stimulus of mining.

Check out the “Kneeling Miner” monument at the entrance of Webb City’s King Jack Park, so named because of the central role that “jack,” or zinc, played in the town’s history. Webb City is also home to an annual Mining Days celebration each September.

In Joplin, the Everett J. Ritchie Tri-State Mineral Museum, located in Schiffer-decker Park, offers an in-depth look at the area’s mining heritage. Featuring mineral specimens, mining tools and historic photographs, the museum is open every day except Monday.

If you want a firsthand look at the desolate legacy that mining has left on the landscape of the area, visit the mine tailings or chat piles a mile north of the museum. For an evening meal, you might try the French cuisine at the Old Miner’s Inn in Alba, a former mining town located about 15 miles north of Joplin.

Ho for Kansas

From Joplin, West Seventh Street, which is Old Route 66, takes motorists into Kansas and the first town across the border is Galena. After lead was discovered in the southeast corner of Kansas in the spring of 1877, miners and prospectors rushed to the camp and the town that sprang up was called Galena after the mineral that constitutes the principal ore of lead. The frenzy of mining activity in the tri-state area shifted to the Sunflower State, as many of those who hurried to the scene came across the state line from Missouri.

Today, the Galena Mining and Historical Museum celebrates the town’s early history and mining heritage. Located on Galena’s West Seventh Street, it is open six days a week and Sundays by appointment.

Follow Old Route 66 less than 10 miles west of Galena and you’ll come to Baxter Springs. Noted for its status as the first cow town in Kansas in the late 1800s, Baxter experienced a second boom in the early 1900s when the field of mining operations moved farther west. The Baxter Springs Heritage Center and Museum preserves the town’s history and includes a wing dedicated to the area’s mining past. If you’re ready for lunch while in Baxter Springs and you’d like a taste of the town’s Wild West heritage, as well as its mining past, visit the Cafe on the Route. The restaurant is in an old bank building that was the site of a notorious robbery in the 1870s, reportedly committed by Jesse James.

No sampling of the mining heritage of the tri-state region would be complete without a detour to Big Brutus, located about 25 miles northwest of Baxter Springs. From the late 1800s to the mid 1900s, coal mining flourished alongside lead and zinc mining in southeast Kansas, and a gigantic electric coal shovel named Big Brutus now stands on the site where it last saw duty as a monument to the area’s coal mining heritage. When weather permits, visitors 13 and older can climb to the top of the 16-story shovel. All may sit in the operator’s seat and see the levers and dials that manipulated the shovel. In addition to the shovel, the site includes a visitors center and offers camping and picnic facilities.

On to Oklahoma

Just southwest of Baxter Springs, Old Route 66 crosses into Oklahoma and a few miles farther on the traveler comes to the turnoff to Picher.

After ore was discovered on nearby Tar Creek in 1914, the focal point of lead and zinc mining in the region once again shifted westward and several mines in the Picher field continued to operate into the 1950s.

Today, the communities of Picher and neighboring Cardin, more than any of the other former mining towns of the tri-state district, still resemble mining camps. Although there have been environmental clean-up efforts, the surrounding landscape is dotted with huge piles of mine tailings.

The Picher Mining Field Museum, open during afternoons only, commemorates the area’s mining legacy. Call (918) 673-1414 for more information. The Dodson Museum and Memorial Center at Miami, located a few miles farther west on Old Route 66, also features a display pertaining to the mining history of northeast Oklahoma. Call (918) 542-5388 or (918) 542-5297 for information.

Although mining in the tri-state district of Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma played out nearly half a century ago, visitors can still stake a claim in the rich legacy of the area’s past and experience the world of hard-rock mining that men like Jack Green knew firsthand.


Larry Wood is a new contributor from Joplin, Mo.

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