By Roger McKinney
Mining led to the formation of most area towns and for about 100 years remained a basis of the area economy.
In Pittsburg, Weir, West Mineral and Scammon in Kansas, the miners dug for coal. In Joplin and Webb City, Mo., Galena, Kan., and Picher, Okla., lead and zinc were the products.
“Mining in both of those fields really led to the industrialization of the whole region,” said Randy Roberts, Pittsburg State University archivist and curator of special collections. “The mines led to the railroads, smelting plants, the presence of unions and ethnic diversity.”
That sentiment was echoed by Brad Belk, director of the Joplin Museum Complex.
“As much as we try to disassociate ourselves from mining, we look back at the businesses we have, and they all have ties to mining,” he said.
For example, he said, St. John’s Regional Medical Center began because of the need to quickly treat seriously injured miners. Empire District Electric Co. thrived because of a contract to power the mines.
The Joplin Museum Complex, in Schifferdecker Park, is one of several area locations one can visit to get an idea of the area’s mining history. Some others are:
Big Brutus, at West Mineral, Kan.
Miners Memorial, at Pittsburg.
Galena Mining and Historical Museum.
Baxter Springs Heritage Center and Museum.
Roberts said area mining began shortly after the end of the Civil War, in the early 1870s, and continued at a diminishing rate into the 1970s. He said the peak production and employment in the mines was around World War I.
The area still suffers from the environmental effects of the lead and zinc mining, because of the mine waste the companies left behind. The Tri-State Mining District is an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site. Residents of Picher are being relocated under a federal buyout, leaving a ghost town in what was once a lively mining community.
Miners Memorial is located on Second Street, between Pine and Walnut streets in downtown Pittsburg. It includes a larger-than-life-size bronze statue of a miner returning home from work at the end of a hard day. Black granite monuments contain the names of miners that were submitted by their family members. The first stone monument is an interpretive marker.
“This memorial is dedicated to the men and women who not only toiled to extract coal from the earth and create a new homeland, but also engaged in a courageous struggle for social reforms that advanced the cause of human and civil rights in America,” the marker reads in part. “A diverse populace of uncommon strength, ingenuity and heart, their presence lives on in their descendants and in the businesses, farms and towns they established in Southeast Kansas.”
Larry Busse, of Joliet, Ill., was visiting the memorial on Thursday with his wife, June, and their grandson, Jake Rawlings. Busse, 67, was in town for his 50-year high school reunion in Arma, where he grew up.
He said he remembers his dad, Carl Busse, coming home with his lunch pail and wearing his miner’s helmet after spending the day in the mines.
“He ended up dying from black lung, 43 years ago,” Busse said. He found his father’s name and that of his uncle, Tony Busse, on the monument.
Mine disasters, labor unrest
Informational panels along a walkway at the memorial describe some of the events related to the coal-mining era. They include information on the Nov. 9, 1888, mine explosion in Frontenac that resulted in the deaths of 49 miners. A mine explosion on Dec. 13, 1917, at Stone City, a mile east and two miles north of West Mineral, resulted in 20 deaths.
Roberts said that though there were spectacular disasters, men died in the mines all the time. He said 40 to 60 deaths in the mines each year was common.
The panels also describe Alexander Howatt, president of District 14 of the United Mine Workers of America, who is credited with establishing “a powerful and militant union membership” in Southeast Kansas.
Another panel describes the “Amazon Army,” in which between 3,000 and 6,000 wives, mothers and daughters of striking miners in December 1921 marched from Miners Hall in Franklin to the coal fields to attempt to prevent replacement workers from reporting to work.
Memorial organizer Louis Casaletto, of Frontenac, said the memorial was completed only recently.
Immigrants from throughout Europe came to Southeast Kansas to work in the coal mines. Roberts said that in Frontenac alone, 52 different nationalities are documented. The area earned the nickname Little Balkans.
Big Brutus, other museums
Roberts said that as the deep-shaft mining ended in the early 1960s, strip mining began. That era is well represented by Big Brutus, the 160-foot-tall, 11-million-pound coal shovel at West Mineral. The electric shovel operated from 1963 to 1974.
The shovel has been a tourist destination since 1985. A museum is open daily, except Christmas and Thanksgiving. It includes mining equipment, an informational video and many photos.
The Joplin Museum Complex includes dioramas representing mining operations. Miners’ hats, drills, dynamite and other equipment used in the mines also are on display.
The collection of lamps includes sunshine lamps, from which the downtown Joplin Sunshine Lamp District took its name. The trolleys running routes in Joplin also hearken back to the days when trolleys provided miners transportation to and from the mines throughout the district.
The museum has an extensive collection of minerals recovered from the mines. Belk said some of the samples are unique to the area.
The collection also includes zinc bars bearing the names of local mines.
Belk said that unlike in Southeast Kansas, labor unrest was uncommon in the lead and zinc mines.
“Labor unions had a tough time finding a footing for a long period of time,” he said.
Area miners are honored with a statue of a miner in Spiva Park in downtown Joplin.
The Galena Mining and Historical Museum’s collection includes many photographs, equipment and tools. Outside the building are some of the buckets with a capacity for 1,650 pounds of ore that were used in the mines. There also are models of the derricks found at the mines.
The museum is in the former MKT depot on Seventh Street, from where the trains carrying the lead and zinc departed.
The Baxter Springs Heritage Center and Museum over the weekend held an open house to introduce visitors to its collection from the Picher Mining Field Museum. The museum display includes a large, panoramic photo of Picher and its mines. Tools, mining helmets, oil lamps and other mining equipment and photos are in the display case below the photo.
One corner of the museum is meant to portray a realistic idea of life in the mines, with a mannequin in miner’s clothing, a drill, dynamite and other items.
Phyllis Abbott, president of the Baxter Springs Historical Society, on Thursday showed a reporter the room where the Picher collection is being processed, cataloged and researched. Workers so far have scanned 500 panoramic photos. A large collection of mine maps and derrick blueprints also is on file. The collection includes scientific and personal accounts of the mining industry.
“The important thing is to save the history for future generations,” Abbott said.
Mined Land Wildlife Area
The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks oversees its Mined Land Wildlife Area on nearly 15,000 acres in Cherokee, Crawford and Labette counties. The land, which was used as surface mining for coal, has been reclaimed. The state says the area has about 320,000 visitors each year.
<img src="http://www.joplinglobeonline.com/images/zope/extra.gif" border="0">Mining history preserved throughout area<font color="#ff0000"> w/ slide show</font>
By Roger McKinney
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