Mining Meant Much

Mining INdustry in the Washington County Area

The unique geology of the Eastern Ozarks in the Washington County area left mineral deposits that drew the first settlers to the area and a mining industry that has meant much to the area down to the present day. Lead, always needed to be on the frontier, brought the first settlers, as French miners from 1720 on mined and crudely smelted the rich surface outcroppings of lead in the area. Moses Austin in 1798 turned lead mining a smelting into Missouri’s first major industry, and in the 20 years to following 1804, lead produced in Washington County nearly equaled in the value the purchase price of the Louisiana Purchase.

As surface lead was exhausted, lead production turned to deep mine production in the Lead Belt area of Bonne Terre-Flat River, (Park Hills) from 1860 through the 1960’s, when discovery of the Viburnum Trend shifted production to that area. Lead mining also continued in Washington County – in a surface lead “boom” in the Palmer area in the 1890’s, and in the deep shafts of St. Joe Lead Company at Ebo from 1948 to 1982.


A unique mineral asset of the area is “tiff” (or barite), named by the French from their word, “Tuff”, meaning “scrap”, which they first threw aside in lead mining. As technology discovered uses for the hard, white chalky ore, production in surface hand mines continued throughout central and northern Washington County from the 1860’s to the 1920’s, when mechanization began with washing plants and mechanized strip-mining. 

The colorful days of the “Tiff Diggings” in Washington County earned it the title of “Barite Capitol of the World”, as the mineral was used in pigments, face powders, medical uses and chocolate coatings. The final major use was for the “mud” in oil-well drilling. Although deposits of “tiff” still remain, production has declined in recent years in the face of imports and the decline of oil exploration drilling which made such heavy use of the ore.

Rattlebox Day in the Tiff Fields


Surface mining of iron was begun in Washington County as early as 1823, when the Springfield Iron Furnace was opened on Furnace Creek and zinc was also mined in later years near Irondale. Discovery of rich underground deposits of iron in northern Washington County in the 1960’s led to the development of St. Joe Mineral’s Pea Ridge Mine, which still remains in production as the nation’s only underground iron mine.