Secrets of the Show-Me State
We are suspended in the clear water. The beam of our dive guide's light spears through 90 feet of clear water to pick out a metal object lying far below: a lifeless locomotive. Its ghostly presence beams up at us, beckoning for attention.
Everything is abandoned here. Shovels and picks lie silently on the ground waiting for their owners to return them to use. Long pillars rise to the ceiling a submerged auditorium. Lights strung in the air above filter goldly down to us, and yellow and brown stone paint a scene of long-abandoned industry. You believe you are heading for the center of the earth, occasionally seeing another left-behind piece of history. The shiver at the back of your neck isn't from the water's chill, but from the eerie secrets the ghosts whisper. The story is an old one, of PADI recreational facility Bonne Terre Mine (2dive.com), in Missouri, the heart of America.
Missouri where a young Mark Twain fell in love with steamboating, the St. Louis arch acts as the gateway to the west, and barbecue comes in one color: red. For years, divers have ventured here from across the country and even from around the world to find out just what lies below. The Show-Me State holds some of the Midwest's best diving secrets, even though the nearest ocean is half a continent away.
Those in the know drive 60 miles south of St. Louis to satisfy their inner "Indiana Jones." Even diving great Jacques Cousteau left the ocean temporarily for a splash in the abandoned nickel mine that has made Bonne Terre famous among divers. The draw here is history; the marine life is practically nonexistent. But when you find yourself suspended among the ghostly machinery, you just don't seem to notice.
Excavations began at Bonne Terre Mine in 1870. In 1961 mining operations ceased and the facility was left exactly as it was rock drills, trucks, buildings and all. Divers stay in the rolling foothills of the Ozark Mountains or right at the mine itself. Although the Midwest experiences the four seasons of weather, the waters at Bonne Terre remain a constant 58º F and has no thermocline. During underground "surface" intervals, the mine's air temp stays a solid 62º F. More than 500,000 watts of lighting illuminate the Billion Gallon Lake's 24 dive trails, taking divers on a tour past lofty archways, calcium falls, mammoth pillars and more, down to the maximum guided depth of 80 feet. Once there, divers can look up to see the architecture of the mine rise from the depths as the silhouettes of divers pass overhead. It's not just an underwater history lesson; it's quite a view.
Although Missouri divers may be landlocked, their diving offers more than meets the eye and there's plenty to do after the dive. Besides Silver Dollar City and Branson, Missouri offers plenty of surface-interval action, from a trip to the top of the Gateway Arch to world-class bass fishing to the Show-Me State's beloved Arthur Bryant's barbecue in Kansas City. Like Missouri's diving, topside is worth the trip, too.