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Geology and mining history of the Southeast Missouri Barite District and the Valles Mines, Washington, Jefferson, and St. Francois Counties, Missouri

March 9, 2017

The Southeast Missouri Barite District and the Valles Mines are located in Washington, Jefferson, and St. Francois Counties, Missouri, where barite and lead ore are present together in surficial and near-surface deposits. Lead mining in the area began in the early 1700’s and extended into the early 1900’s. Hand mining of lead in the residuum resulted in widespread pits (also called shafts or diggings), and there was some underground mining of lead in bedrock. By the 1860’s barite was recovered from the residuum by hand mining, also resulting in widespread diggings, but generally not underground mines in bedrock. Mechanized open-pit mining of the residuum for barite began in the 1920’s. Barite production slowed by the 1980’s, and there has not been any barite mining since 1998. Mechanized barite mining resulted in large mined areas and tailings ponds containing waste from barite mills.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that lead is present in surface soils in Washington and Jefferson Counties at concentrations exceeding health-based screening levels. Also, elevated concentrations of barium, arsenic, and cadmium have been identified in surface soils, and lead concentrations exceeding the Federal drinking-water standard of 15 micrograms per liter have been identified in private drinking-water wells. Potential sources of these contaminants are wastes associated with barite mining, wastes associated with lead mining, or unmined natural deposits of barium, lead, and other metals. As a first step in helping EPA determine the source of soil and groundwater contamination, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with the EPA, investigated the geology and mining history of the Southeast Missouri Barite District and the Valles Mines.

Ore minerals are barite (barium sulfate), galena (lead sulfide), cerussite (lead carbonate), anglesite (lead sulfate), sphalerite (zinc sulfide), smithsonite (zinc carbonate), and chalcopyrite (copper-iron sulfide). The Cambrian Potosi Dolomite is the most important formation for the ore deposits, followed by the Eminence Dolomite. Because galena, sphalerite, and barite are less soluble than dolomite, chemical weathering of the ore-bearing dolomite bedrock resulted in the concentration of ore minerals in the residuum. Most of the barite and lead mining was in the residuum, which averages 10 to 15 feet thick.

Lead mining by French explorers may have begun in 1719 along Old Mines Creek at Cabanage de Renaudiere, which was followed shortly by the discovery of lead and the development of lead mines at Mine Renault (also called Forche a Renault Mine), Old Mines, and at other places along the Big River, Mineral Fork, and Forche a Renault Creek. Lead mining began sometime between 1775 and 1780 at Mine a Breton, the name of which was later changed to Potosi. Other mining areas were developed in the early part of the 19th century, including Fourche a Courtois (Palmer Mines), the French Diggings, and the Richwoods Mines. Zinc became a valuable resource after the Civil War, and the Valles Mines was an important supplier of zinc as well as lead, with at least some production up until the 1920’s. Lead mining declined in the early part of the 20th century as mining in the Old Lead Belt, Mine La Motte, and the Tri-State District expanded.

The earliest lead mines were diggings in the residuum and were round holes (shafts) about 4 feet in diameter dug with pick and shovel about 15–20 feet deep, with drifts dug a short distance laterally from the bottom of the shafts. This mining process was repeated a short distance away until a large area was covered with pits. Some mining in bedrock began by about 1800, with shafts as deep as 170 feet and as much as several hundred feet of lateral drifts.

Smelting of the lead ore to elemental lead was first done using a log furnace, which was inefficient; estimates have been made that only about 50 percent of the lead was recovered, and the remainder was lost to the ashes (slags) and to volatilization. Starting in 1798, ash furnaces were used to smelt the ashes from the log furnaces. These two furnaces were worked in tandem for many years but were gradually replaced by other furnaces, including the Scotch hearth. Estimates of lead recovery as high as 80–90 percent have been made for the Scotch hearth. By the mid-1870’s the air furnace was being used, also with estimated lead recovery as high as 80–90 percent. Zinc furnaces were built when zinc became a valuable commodity, but much of the zinc ore was shipped out of the area, either to a smelter in St. Louis, Missouri, or to other smelters.

The total lead and zinc production from the Southeast Missouri Barite District and the Valles Mines is estimated at 180,000 tons of lead and 60,000 tons of zinc. An estimated 97,000 tons of lead and an estimated 120,000 tons of zinc were lost during smelting. The estimated losses do not include losses at the mine site during mining and preparation for smelting, such as the loss of fine-grained galena during hand cleaning or the discarding of zinc ore before its value was known, for which no estimates are available.

Hand mining for barite in the residuum was active by at least the 1860’s and peaked from 1905 to the 1930’s when several thousand people were engaged in barite mining. Hand mining (diggings) and cleaning of the ore was done in much the same way as earlier lead mining, with the additional use of a rattle box to further clean the barite. Mechanized open-pit mining of old barite diggings began in 1924 to recover barite left behind by hand mining, and washing plants were used to clean the clay from the barite. Hand mining, however, continued to thrive, and washer plants began to close temporarily in 1931; nearly all of the barite produced before 1937 was by hand mining. By the 1940’s, however, all barite mining was mechanized.

Mechanized mining used shovels powered by steam, gasoline, or electricity (and by the 1950’s draglines and front-end loaders) to mine the residuum. The ore was loaded onto rail cars (and by the 1940’s, trucks) for shipment to washer plants. Clay was removed from the barite using a log washer, and a jig was used to concentrate the barite. Overflow from the log washers was waste and went to a mud (tailings) pond. The coarse jig tailings went to tailings piles or were used as railroad ballast and, later, to create roads within the mine pit. Some barite was ground, depending on its final use, and some ground barite was bleached using a hot solution of sulfuric acid to remove impurities such as iron minerals and lead sulfide (galena). An earlier bleaching process used lead-lined tanks.

Large quantities of water were required for milling the barite; some was recirculated water and the remainder came from dammed streams or was pumped from wells. Tailings and wastewater were impounded behind dikes that were built across small valleys and were increased in height as necessary using washer waste and any overburden that had been stripped. In some cases, dikes were built across valleys that had already been mined for barite.

The total production of barite from the Southeast Missouri Barite District and the Valles Mines is estimated to have been about 13.1 million tons. Most of the barite production was from Washington County. Hand mining and processing of barite was inefficient. Estimates of barite recovery range from less than one-fourth to about one-half because pillars between the shafts in the residuum needed to be left unmined for stability. With mechanized mining, large amounts of barite were lost during the milling process. It has been estimated that about 30 percent of the barite was lost and that about two-thirds of the lost barite was fine-grained and was discharged to the tailings ponds. Some galena was lost to the tailings ponds.

A 1972 inventory of tailings ponds by the Missouri Geological Survey identified 67 ponds in the Southeast Missouri Barite District (there are more than this currently documented). Results from samples from four ponds that were drilled were used to estimate that the 67 ponds contained almost 39 million tons (or cubic yards) of tailings averaging about 5 percent barite, for a potential reserve of 1.935 million tons of barite.

It is not known how much lead was removed during barite mining, either by hand or mechanized mining and processing, how much lead was recovered, or how much lead went as fines to the tailing ponds or as coarse material to mine roads or was otherwise lost.

Publication Year 2017
Title Geology and mining history of the Southeast Missouri Barite District and the Valles Mines, Washington, Jefferson, and St. Francois Counties, Missouri
DOI 10.3133/sir20165173
Authors Douglas N. Mugel
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2016-5173
Index ID sir20165173
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Missouri Water Science Center