From the day its founder arrived here, this Mississippi River town has been tied inseparably to lead, the heavy, dull-gray metal that has been mined in southern Missouri for more than two centuries.
As home to the nation’s only primary lead smelter, Herculaneum processes raw ore into metal to make car batteries, X-ray shields and many other products.
But the end of that long tradition is in sight for the small town 25 miles south of St. Louis that began smelting when this land was still owned by Spain. The company that runs the smelter, Doe Run Co., has decided to cease most operations at the end of the year, citing rising regulatory costs.
Lead has been both kind and cruel to Herculaneum, giving it an identity and ready jobs but also creating environmental and health concerns so worrisome that the federal government designated it a Superfund site and ordered tons of contaminated dirt to be dug up and removed. Many of the town’s children were found to have dangerously high lead levels in their blood.
Herculaneum’s history dates to 1798, when a settler from Connecticut named Moses Austin obtained a Spanish land grant after learning of the region’s mineral deposits. He began mining and producing lead almost immediately.
By the mid-1800s, southeast Missouri was known as the “Lead Belt” for its rich deposits. Herculaneum’s standing was enhanced when the St. Joseph Lead Co. picked it as the site for a huge smelter, which opened in 1892 to extract lead from ore.
Lead paint and leaded gasoline were phased out long ago, but lead still is used in many everyday products.
In 1994, St. Louis-based Doe Run bought the operation and with it the risks of a business that was the focus of growing health concerns.