Mine Movies

Sscott bylineIn the ’30s, portable film projection technology was still in its early years. This made for a fascinating article in our magazine archives about the technology’s use for safety education in Missouri mines.

The January-February 1931 issue featured a story on the St. Joseph Lead Co.’s accident prevention program, including text slides and films that were projected for workers in Bonne Terre Mine 500 feet below the surface.

“As one enters the top rear of the moving picture amphitheater from the shaft that leads from above, the attention is attracted by a large brilliantly illuminated screen, located at what would be the stage of the auditorium,” the author wrote. “On this screen, which is made of metal and is twelve feet square, pertinent safety messages to the miners stand out vividly in the surrounding darkness.”


Photo’s original caption: “Watching Safety Movies at Bottom of Shaft No. 1, St. Joseph Lead Company, Bonne Terre, Mo. Portable Movie Machine Right Foreground.”

A stereopticon, a projector glass that photograph slides were placed in, was automated with a timer to switch on when miners were arriving for or leaving a shift. “Similar screens and machines, located at a number of important points throughout the property, enable the company to send its entire underground force to work daily with a new and pertinent safety thought,” the article noted.

Playing movies was more of a special event: “Occasionally a moving-picture machine is installed in place of the stereopticon and a safety, health or other educational film is shown while the miners, waiting for the day’s work to start, sit or stand around the underground theater.”

The program was an effective combination of practical safety measures and these more entertaining aspects. In addition to films, the company “brought to bear upon the usual mining hazards all of the tested and approved devices” and as a result had operated for the whole year of 1929 without any fatal accidents.

At the time the article was published, the company employed more than 3,000 workers. “The management has also been active in providing good housing facilities, ample supplies of pure water, healthful recreational advantages and other community activities that have made the Missouri lead belt an ideal mining community,” the writer added.

The company had purchased land in the vicinity of the town of Bonne Terre back in 1864. The mining area that included Bonne Terre, Desloge, Park Hills, Doe Run and Leadwood would be known as the “Lead Belt” and, later, the “Old Lead Belt.”

The Missouri Department of Revenue reported that more than 8.5 million tons of lead was mined in the Old Lead Belt over the years. It makes sense that galena, the major source of lead ore, is our official state mineral.

Bonne Terre Mine became one of the world’s largest man-made caverns. It was once the world’s top lead producer but was shut down in 1962. Today, lead mining continues in the Viburnum Trend, or the New Lead Belt, in the Southeast Missouri Lead District.

Watching safety movies underground might have been a novelty, but it would have paled in comparison to the wonder Bonne Terre Mine is today. Twelve years after it closed, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Since then it has been developed into an acclaimed tourist attraction.

With the pumps shut off, the lower three of the five levels flooded with groundwater, creating a 1 billion-gallon lake famous as a scuba diving destination. The water is crystal clear, allowing divers to explore a submerged ghost town of ore carts and other mining artifacts that were left behind. Visitors can also take guided tours by boat or wander the old mule trails. The resort has been named America’s Best Underwater Attraction, and National Geographic once voted it one of the top 10 adventure spots in the country.

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