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Major Discoveries Make the News

March 20, 2002

Historian's Notes

Mining plays, or has played, an important part of the economy of northeast Oklahoma. For decades the population of that part of the state relied heavily on the mining of zinc and lead for their existence. Unfortunately, like all regions dependent on an extractive economy, the story of the tri-state mining region does not end happily. Decreased ore production and company closings left the economy and the residents of the region sitting between a rock and a hard place. Furthermore, the decades of mining with no thought as to environmental concerns has created the Tar Creek debacle of pollution and poisoning for the area.


The Picher Mining Museum in Picher, Ok.

Wilderness Bonanza Arrell M. Gibson

The Chronicles of Oklahoma, Summer 1972

Almanac Transcript

Major discoveries make the news this week on the Oklahoma Audio Almanac.

Hello, I'm Steven Knoche Kite.

The tri-state mining area of Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri is known for the vast amount of ore produced from the site. From the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century miners dug millions of tons of ore, lead and zinc mostly, from the area making the tri-state region one of the most productive ore producing sites in the world. The tri-state mining region, a thirty mile wide swath of ore laden ground, extending approximately from Springfield, Missouri to Miami, Oklahoma was used periodically by Native Americans, and there are even tales of the Spanish explorers digging for gold there.

According to some sources the remains of the ancient Spanish gold diggings can be seen to this day. The first attempt at commercial mining in the area came in 1849 when prospectors on their way to the California gold fields were temporarily lured to the area by tales of gold and riches. Finding not gold, but lead, the miners in 1849 set up at least one crude mining and smelting operation before continuing on to California. The area by the mid to late 1800s was widely known to contain a great deal of what is called "Free-Lead" just below the surface. The term "Free-Lead" means that the deposits are basically free of any other matter and can be easily readied for smelting.

Mining in Kansas and Missouri began in earnest in the 1870s, but operations in Indian Territory were held up a bit due to complications between tribal and U.S. governments. Finally by 1889 for better or worse, the tribes located in the northeastern section of what is now Oklahoma were handed individual land allotments. For the first time the ore rich land could now be legally leased, prospected and mined. After 1889 it was only a short time before Ottawa County, Indian Territory would lead the world in lead and zinc production. It was in this week of 1877 on March 21st that prospectors sunk a shaft near Galena, Kansas striking a rich vein of "Free-Lead". The discovery of such lead close to the surface sparked a tri-state mining boom that lasted until the middle part of the twentieth century. It is estimated that within a few days over 10,000 people flooded into the area looking to strike it rich. The strike occurring this week in 1877 changed forever the quality of life and landscape for those residents of what is now northeastern Oklahoma.

Getting the lead out this week on the Almanac.

I'm Steven Knoche Kite.

The Oklahoma Audio Almanac is a joint production of the Oklahoma State University Library and Oklahoma's Public Radio.

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