by Jeremy Manczuk-
The Missouri Mines State Historic Site in Leadington, Missouri (about 60 mile south of St. Louis in St. Francois County) does not concern itself with the people who labored in the tunnels below. The men (judging by the enlarged photographs hanging on the wall, the mines were not an arena of equal opportunity) who labored in the more than 1,000 miles of “abandoned multilevel mine tunnels” are treated as little more than a sidebar to the museum’s choices to highlight other aspects of the mining world.
For instance, the museum places a high priority on the tools the workers used. From candle lanterns to large underground railroad components, the first room of the museum is filled with the various tools used by miners in the area from the late nineteenth century until 1972 when the mines, depleted, were shut down. The other perspective the museum heavily focuses on is the minerals workers pulled from the holes in which they labored. The exhibits in the second gallery of the museum are largely devoted to the once-private mineral collection of a former executive of the company that ran the mine. These minerals, which were collected from mining sites around the world, are often impressive chunks of rock. They do not, however, offer any historical context to a museum sorely in need of some. There is, of course, space in museums for geology and the heavy tools of industry. Nevertheless, when a museum that labels itself “historic” discards humanity, the narrative it strives to present ends up cold, wrongheaded, and, ultimately, uninteresting.
While it is accurate to say that the museum’s physical space is divided evenly (more or less) between the presentations of the artifacts of geology and the tools used by miners, another more disturbing theme is evident–the celebration and protection of the former St. Joe Lead Company. This agenda, somewhat discernible in the presentation of artifacts, is most common and strongly realized in the connection between the museum and the public–the oratory of the museum’s docents. While the St. Joe Lead Company is far from infamous in matters of company-employee relations, there were confrontations between the two groups. There were strikes, the working conditions were far from ideal, and there was racial unrest amongst the workers. If this was dealt with in an honest, forthright fashion the company would not be completely to blame–it would, however, raise questions of the shared “heritage” of the workers and the company–a heritage that is strongly emphasized in the museum.
Another way in which the museum’s guides preserve the legacy of the St. Joe Lead Company is through pointed discourse regarding the company and the local environment. The Environmental Protection Agency has forced the company (now known as the Doe Run Company) to cleanse the area of the lead-infused waste piles known as chat dumps. Although the mines closed decades ago, massive amounts of lead waste (also called tailings) still remains in the soil. The primary concern is to remove the lead from schools and other places where children are commonly present. According to the docents of the Missouri Mines State Historic Site, however, this is a “witch-hunt” perpetrated on the company by the Environmental Protection Agency. The high levels of lead have been misrepresented by the government and the citizens of the area have nothing to fear. While I readily admit that I do not have the scientific background necessary to judge the validity of these claims, I can assure the reader that the problems of lead pollution in the area are heavily documented. In any case, a state sponsored “historic site” may want to ensure that both sides of this contemporary issue are addressed. Besides the rhetoric of the museum guides, the environmental issues resulting from the mining are not acknowledged.
Perhaps the most interesting components of the museum are the buildings located above the mines. Unfortunately, and understandably, these buildings are not safe enough for the public. In lieu of analysis, here are some photographs: