Bonne Terre Mines | Bonne Terre, Missouri
Tucked away near a small town in St. Francois County, the Bonne Terre Mine is home to the world’s largest subterranean lake It continues to be a highly visited destination for tourists and scuba divers alike.
Before the mine was developed in 1860, Native Americans discovered that the galena lead in that area was so plentiful that it could be found above ground. Galena could be turned into ammunition or shot, among other uses.
The Native Americans uncovered its value, but it was not until the French colonized the area that the true extent of the resources was unearthed.
The mine was developed in 1860, spanning five levels and supplying a great deal of the lead used during the Spanish-American War and the Industrial Revolution. It was an active lead mine until 1962, when the machinery had become outdated and most of the lead had been extracted.
It was not long after this that Douglas and Catherine Goergens saw an opportunity to breathe new life into the old mine.
Because the pumps that had previously kept the water at bay had been turned off, three of the five levels of the mine had been submerged by crystal-clear water. This feature lends a singular opportunity for the mines to offer both walking and boat tours, as well as scuba diving and diving certifications.
“The diving is world renowned,” Douglas Goergens said. “It was rated the best diving destination in the United States by USA Today’s reader poll. We’ve always rated in the top 10 of the best dive sites in the world.”
On average, the mine attracts 15,000 scuba divers a year and anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 tourists. Multiple weddings have taken place in the mine over the years.
It has been featured in multiple movies and was filmed during Red Bull’s World Championship Wakeboard competition. Sea explorer Jacques Cousteau even paid a visit to the mine, planning to spend half a day diving and instead of staying for five days to film the setting.
“One of the things that most astonished him was that man had adulterated the earth by mining it and Mother Nature had come back and reclaimed the void that had been created,” Goergens said. “Not just reclaimed it but purified it. Mother Nature has created her own ecosystem here.”
The climate remains stable year-round, with the water averaging around 58 degrees F and the air about 62 degrees. The mine is illuminated with more than a half-million watts of stadium lighting, providing an ethereal experience for those underwater.
“When you’re scuba diving in the mine, it’s like you’re an astronaut in outer space,” Goergens said. “You’re going from cliff to cliff in a beautiful blue abyss of crystal-clear water. You really get the sensation of soaring as a diver.”
The tour includes 65 steps down into the mine, at which point the walking trails are paved. About two-thirds of the way through the tour, guests board a boat and complete a circuit through the submerged portion of the mine.
Scuba diving certification classes are also offered by appointment. Once certified, divers can engage in a selection of dives into the submerged mine, which range in depth and the number of dive hours needed.
Most dives range in depth from 40 to 60 feet below the surface, although the submerged portion of the mine is 200 feet deep in some places.