Tuesday, April 11, 2006

 

Adventure awaits in submerged mine beneath Bonne Terre

_________________________________________________________________

The Kansas City Star
By Steve Rock
April 09, 2006



Photo courtesy of the Missouri Department of Tourism
Crystal-clear 58-degree water with sight lines that often

extend 150 feet attract scuba divers to the Bonne Terre
Mine in eastern Missouri.


BONNE TERRE, Mo. — The amazing thing about this lake isn’t necessarily the guest list, which has included Jacques Cousteau and others from around the globe.

It’s not the lake’s enormity or even the array of deserted mining equipment strewn across the bottom, the shovels and drills and ore carts.

No, the thing that is so incredible about this lake is its location.

It sits more than 150 feet below the businesses and streets of Bonne Terre.

Billed as the world’s largest underground artificial lake, this spectacle is one of Missouri’s most unique attractions.

“Nothing that I know of would compare to it,” said Kristi Sharrai, a veteran scuba diver from Kansas City who has visited the lake many times.

Welcome to the Bonne Terre Mine, a subterranean phenomenon that has been described in People magazine and USA Today. It was named one of the nation’s top 10 adventures by National Geographic Adventure magazine and, in November was the subject of a segment on the History Channel’s “Weird U.S.” program.

Not bad for a hole in the ground.

Once the world’s largest producer of lead, the mine was abandoned in the early 1960s. A drop in demand for the metal, coupled with the belief that all the richest lead had been mined, prompted the mining company to walk away and leave behind much of its equipment.

Mine officials also shut off water pumps, allowing natural spring water to fill the cavernous area and create what has become a popular tourist attraction.

Doug and Catherine Goergens of Bonne Terre purchased the mine in 1980. “Our plan was to develop it just as a place to certify open-water dive students,” Doug Goergens said. “It took off beyond our wildest dreams.”

And it did so right in the heart of town, at the intersection of Park and Allen streets.

The mine is not cut into a bluff or tucked into an outlying area. It is in the middle of downtown Bonne Terre, its gentle waters resting below businesses such as C.Z. Boyer & Son Funeral Home. The entrance to the mine, where mules once were led inside, is in a building that looks like a garage or a workshop.

The mine itself is enormous, consisting of five levels and descending 500 feet. The bottom three levels are submerged, and massive pillars of rock serve as support beams throughout the cavern. So enormous are the hollowed-out areas that several couples have celebrated weddings here.

Most of the about 15,000 visitors a year, though, come dressed not in tuxedos but wet suits and scuba gear.

Divers from all over the world — Japan, France, Australia, Russia — have made the journey to this Missouri town about 60 miles south of St. Louis.

Divers come for the 58-degree water that is so clear that sight lines often extend 150 feet. The water, more than a billion gallons of it, is as deep as 275 feet in places.

They come to see the inner workings of a once-thriving industry, where pieces of the past remain suspended in time. Some underwater remnants are huge, such as the 45-foot-long locomotive, and others are as small as a lunch pail.

There is an elevator shaft, ore carts, pickaxes, helmets, you name it. They sit exactly as they did when they were deserted more than 40 years ago.

In one spot, a drill is still driven into a wall, its back protruding into the water. In another, an area known as “The City,” divers can see a time clock that hasn’t been punched in decades.

All told, divers can navigate about two square miles of water with the help of 500,000 watts of floodlights. There are 17 miles of shoreline and 24 dive “trails” to choose from.

There are no life-forms in the water, aside from the tiny freshwater shrimp and a largemouth bass named Bonnie. Bonnie, the only one of a dozen or so fish who survived introduction into the lake, now serves as the welcoming committee for tourists and divers alike.

Harold Bach, who manages Scuba Emporium near Chicago, takes divers to the mine several times each year.

“Most of them come away completely awed by the whole experience,” Bach said.

“I don’t think there’s anything else like it in the world. It’s that unique.”

Not all divers are interested in the mine, though.

Mark Figgins, who owns Adventure Sports in Shawnee, has been in the scuba-diving business 20 years and has never ventured to Bonne Terre. He doesn’t like that all dives have tour guides and that divers aren’t allowed to explore the underground world on their own.

“A certified diver who has experience doesn’t want somebody holding his hand,” Figgins said. “I don’t want to go and jump through somebody else’s hoops.”

Still, even Figgins acknowledged that it is a unique opportunity and said, “I’ve heard so much about it, I feel like I’ve been there.”

To date, more than 500,000 people have.

Some of them take walking tours of the gritty cavern that is largely devoid of commercialization. Others take boat tours, hopping into a pontoon that is lowered nose-first into the only opening — no more than 10 feet wide — where natural light enters the mine.

Others hop into the water. Cousteau, the famed oceanographer who died in 1997, did so in the early 1980s, setting the tone for what has become a lucrative business for the Goergenses, who also own a Caribbean resort in Mexico.

“After that, it really started to take off,” Doug Goergens said of the Cousteau visit. “It was like owning a church and having God himself come down and bless it.

“But we never envisioned it would do what it has done.”


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Bonne Terre Mine

■ Address: 85 N. Allen St.,

Bonne Terre MO 63628

■ Phone: 888-THE-DIVE

(888-843-3483).

■ Web site: www.2dive.com

■ Hours: 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Friday; 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. In summer (June 1 through Labor Day): 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9:30 a.m.- 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. In winter: open Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

■ Walking tours: $12.50 for adults; $6 for children 11 and younger.

■ Boat tours: $17.50 per person.

■ Scuba dive (must be certified): $65 per dive. Dive and occupancy packages available. See Web site for details.

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www.dofundodomar.blogspot.com

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