Mining in the Tri-State District put money in the pockets of investors and landowners during the heyday of production, from 1900 to 1930, with a short recovery during World War II. But once government price supports stopped, mines were slowly abandoned. Their legacy of pollution was not addressed until the 1980s. However, pollution was not mining's only consequence. Cave-ins were a regular event in mine fields.
Shallow mines prior to 1900 were seldom more than 10 or 20 feet deep. Often called "bumblebee" mines because of the little mounds of dirt around the shaft, these were not shored up by timbers but hollowed out around ore deposits. Once the deposit was exhausted, the shaft was abandoned and miners moved on. While there was little danger of a general collapse due to their small size, such diggings were mainly a danger to wandering children and livestock.
Joplin earned the nickname "City of Holes" due to the sheer number of abandoned mines. Historian Joel Livingston reported it was not until there had been a number of accidents and several deaths that "miners were compelled to fill up the abandoned mines in close proximity to the streets and largely traveled roads."
As excavations sought deeper ore deposits, mines grew in depth and galleries extended far from the mine's opening shaft. Some district mines could be as deep as 450 feet. The land between Galena and Schifferdecker Park was littered with mines and exploratory shafts. It was one of the most extensively mined fields in the district. The A.W.C. #1 through #5, the W.O. Cragg, Waneta, Bryant, Liberty Bell, M and H, Sweetwater, Central Mining Co., Ben B., Consumers, Rabbit Foot, Once More, Hornaday, Tuxedo and multiple unnamed mines clustered along West Seventh Street.
One of the oldest mines was the Paragon near the northeast corner of the intersection of West Seventh Street and Blackcat Road. Originally the Nellie M., it sold to the Paragon Mining Co. for $40,000 in 1902, which translates today to about $1.1 million. The mine had been a heavy producer but had become moribund by 1910. It was rejuvenated before World War I. By 1939 the mine had long been abandoned.
A dark and stormy night
The Globe reported that it was about 1 a.m. on a stormy Saturday night with torrential rain in July 1939 when a young, unidentified hitchhiker walking Highway 66 to Joplin discovered a cave-in.
"The hitchhiker, walking toward the city, passed over the stretch of road and heard the rumbling and slipping of the ground. He went to a gasoline service station near by and inquired, 'Does the ground slip and rumble like that all the time around here?' The service station attendant realized what was occurring and notified authorities."
Daylight revealed a hole about 200 feet long and 150 feet wide with a depth ranging from 50 to 130 feet. The pit neared the concrete slab of Highway 66 and continued to grow through Sunday and Monday. Traffic was not rerouted on Sunday though motorists were warned by a deputy sheriff to proceed slowly and keep to the south side of the pavement.
Closer inspection on Monday showed "a yawning chasm 30 to 40 feet across and extending south underneath the slab. The pavement (was) sagging over a stretch of 40 to 50 feet."
J.R. Ellis, a highway department engineer, examined the site and Highway 66 was closed from Schifferdecker Avenue to the Hero crossing, a distance of 1 mile.
"An area about 400 feet back from the cave-in on both sides also was fenced and barricaded. Highway department employees were keeping spectators off the right of way today as a precautionary measure," the Globe reported.
The landowner recalled that the mine went to a depth of 130 to 140 feet and that a large area was "cut out," which meant pillars were removed as the mine was abandoned. Some feared additional caving. Workers remembered another cave-in had occurred on the south side of Highway 66 just about a hundred yards east 10 years before. It required more than 31,000 cubic yards of chat and gravel to fill.
By Tuesday, the cave-in had grown to 300 feet in length along the highway's north side. Ellis told the Globe that filling the pit would require hundreds of tons of rock and chat from nearby piles of mine waste. At least 50 feet of the sagging concrete slab would have to be completely replaced, Ellis said, whether it fell into the pit or not. One theory for the cave-in's cause was that pumping operations at old mines in the Chitwood area lowered the water table in the Paragon drifts, which would have removed the water "cushion" that helped support the roof. The roadway was repaired and work filling the pit continued into August.
Ten months later another cave-in occurred on the opposite side of the highway. This one began slowly but quickly grew even larger than the 1939 chasm. Two days after workers had begun filling the pit, the bottom dropped out, erased their gains, took down more of the highway slab and enlarged the pit to approximately 400 feet east to west. Highway workers took a raft through water-filled drifts to determine if it would continue to cave. They discovered a room about 150 feet square beneath the highway, which had to be filled through drill holes in the room's roof. Two hundred feet of highway had to be replaced. The blacktopped road reopened on June 8, 1940. No concrete pavement was laid until the roadway settled.
The cave-ins were a dramatic reminder of mining's uncertain legacy in the Tri-State District.
Bill Caldwell is the retired librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you’d like him to research, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message at 417-627-7261.