Today, the City of Joplin is a thriving hub for health care and transportation. But there was a time when it was no more than a collection of tents huddled around a series of mines.
Walking into the Joplin History Museum, you’re greeted by the two resident cats who watch over the building—and an entire wing designed to look like an old mine.
Old mining equipment rests in the front lawn. It’s immediately obvious how much the mining industry once influenced the area.
I sit down to learn more from museum director, Christopher Wiseman, who was curator of the museum for twenty years.
He said that the industry really started in the 1870s after two lead miners, known as “Sergeant” and “Moffat,” won a prize for how much they produced in another mine in Missouri.
With this prize money, they leased some land from a Mr. John C. Cox, who had more than an inkling of what was underground.
"One of John C. Cox's slaves before the Civil War had found lead down by a creek while digging for fishing worms."
After a lot of digging on the part of the two miners, according to local legend, a “Eureka” moment occurred.
"Evidently they're ready to give up. They're on their last stick of dynamite. And with this last attempt they hit a rich seam. And in 90 days they pull out $60,000 worth of lead."
That’s about $6 million today, according to Wiseman—and once word got around, people from as far away as Germany and Ireland flocked to seek their fortunes within the Joplin lead and zinc mines.
Joplin became a boom town, not unlike those along the west coast founded during the Gold Rush. However, Wiseman said that there was a key difference.
“The difference between that and gold is to get rich with gold you have to dig up ounces – to get rich with lead and zinc, you have to dig up tons and hundreds of tons at that.”
In the 1920’s, Joplin became one of the largest mining districts in the world, according to Wiseman.
“Miner’s Child” is an Ozarks song performed by Ollie Gilbert. It’s archived in the Max Hunter Folk Song Collection, and gives a bit of insight into the worry that went along with this kind of work.
While a miner could certainly make his fortune here during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the work came with quite a bit of risk.
“No one gets a paper cut in a mine, it’s ‘blown up by dynamite’ or ‘five-ton boulder fell on person.’”
And there were long-term health effects, too, from spending all day in the bowels of a dark, dusty mine.
“It lead to a condition called miner’s silicosis, or brown lung disease, and we really don’t know how many people left the area and then died of complications from the scarring on their lungs.”
After the Joplin tornado of 2011, much of the soil that was picked up and tossed about was full of lead chat. That meant entire yards had to be dug up and replaced with clean topsoil.
The last mine closed in 1970, and most the mines are flooded now due to a lot of groundwater near the surface. But the largest collection of tri-state ore is still housed in the museum.
“Joplin wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the mining at all,” says Wiseman.
Today, you can see that reflected in the city’s seal, and in Joplin’s motto, “Zinc is King.”