Glimpsed from the highway, the old mining complex resembles a broken-down ghost town. As you get closer, the experience becomes even more surreal.
A gentle wind rattles broken boards on dormant, hulking mills. A rail track that once carried lead ore from miles beneath the surface disappears into a tunnel and, apparently, into oblivion. Huge smokestacks and a rickety old water tower rise high above the community of decaying buildings.
This once was the focal point of the old St. Joseph Lead Co., one of the world's top lead producers. In its heyday in the middle of the century, the company milled more than 14,000 tons of rock each day. But by 1972, the company had pulled all it could get out of this region of southeast Missouri known as the Old Lead Belt. Today, the central building at Federal Mill No. 3 is home to one of Missouri's more obscure tourist attractions - the Missouri Mines State Historic Site. The site opened nine years ago as a tribute to Missouri's vast but underappreciated mining heritage. Perhaps because of its out-of-the-way location in a very untouristy setting, it drew just 7,000 visitors last year, many of them schoolchildren on field trips. But the visage of the old place alone is worth the minimal price of admission. And besides, site administrator Art Hebrank says, Missourians need a better understanding of mining's important role in the state's history. "Missouri's been the leading producer of lead in the United States for 90 years," Hebrank said. "There's no other lead producer in the world comparable." Reminders of the region's mining past are found everywhere in these parts. Six mountain-sized piles of granular rock left over from milled ore tower over Park Hills and other nearby towns. Locals count them as simply part of the landscape. In the winter, children make the long climb to the top for thrilling sled rides; at Christmas, Park Hills decorates one mound with Christmas ornaments. Towns like Park Hills (known as Flat River until a name change in 1994), Bonne Terre and Doe Run were boom towns in the early part of the 20th century when the mine employed as many as 6,000. "These towns were only here because of the mines," Hebrank said. "It's not particularly good farm land. There's many generations of miners that lived in this area." At its peak, St. Joseph Lead Co. maintained nearly 300 miles of underground railroad track beneath Park Hills, Desloge, Rivermines, Leadwood, Elvins and other area towns. Miners labored in 1,000 miles of underground tunnels. The boom ended when the St. …