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THE GREAT LEAD AND ZINC FIELDS.

BY THOS. MILLARD.

 

What the Witwatersrand is to the world as a producer of gold, the great Joplin lead and zinc district is as a producer of those humbler but even more necessary metals. Both camps, if settled communities bubbling with life and business activity may be so termed, are at the head of their class, and they have many points of similarity, even to the more than superficial observer. Entering the Joplin district from the eastward, by way of the Frisco System, I was at once struck with the outward resemblance. In. fact, it would have required but little exercise of the imagination to have fancied myself looking from a car window out upon the seething environs of Johannesburg. The landscape is almost identical. There are the wilderness of smoking funnels standing against the sky like a limbless forest, the vast slate-colored dumps of tailings, the labyrinth of car tracks, puffing switch engines and swinging derricks; the succession of "camps," some approaching the dignity of cities, where on every side prospect shafts and mines dispute the surface of the earth with pretentious buildings; the suggestion of a community which at one moment represents all steps along the path of progress; and, pervading it all, the indelible impression of restless, untamable energy.

It is now more than 50 years since lead was discovered in southwest Missouri, near the Kansas border. The first attempts to mine were made near the present site of Joplin. For many years the business was conducted in the most primitive fashion, and under difficulties of almost overpowering nature. The town of Booneville, on the Missouri river, whence the ore could be shipped via water to market, was the nearest available point located on an avenue of commerce, and it had to be hauled there in wagons. However, in time these adverse conditions were ameliorated, and when the St. Louis & San Francisco railroad penetrated the southwest, capital soon saw its opportunity. From the date of acquirement of railroad facilities, the real development of the mining district began. Since then its story has been one of comparatively uninterrupted progress. The district now supports directly and indirectly, some 200,000 people. From a few acres, it has spread over the greater part of Jasper county, Mo., and across the line into Kansas, covering some 600 square miles. It includes the towns of Joplin, Webb City, Carthage, Carterville, Oronogo, Central City, Duenweg, Spring City, Neck City and Chitwood, in Missouri, and Galena, and a number of small camps in Kansas. Properly the district should include the great coal district lying around Pittsburg, Kansas, for, owing to the fact that it is cheaper to transport lead and zinc than coal, nearly all the smelters have located near the coal mines. Thus it is no exaggeration to say that much of the industry lying within the borders of the Kansas coal district derives its support from the lead and zinc mines.

Especially in recent years, the growth of the district has been remarkable. Zinc was not discovered until 1874, when a chemical analysis of some peculiar looking stuff that had been habitually cast upon the waste dumps of the lead mines revealed it to be zinc ore of the highest grade. It was not long before lead mining took a secondary place, as zinc mines were rapidly opened. Reports of the new discovery brought thousands of people into the district, and prospecting began to be extensively carried on. Between 1889 and 1899 the annual output of the district rose from less than $3,000,000 to nearly $11,000,000. Of this, the zinc production furnished probably, on the average, nine-tenths of the value. Since 1899 the output has fallen off slightly in total value, but this has not been due to a decrease in production. The unusual value of the 1899 product was due to extraordinary prices which were more than double those of the previous year, and about 25 per cent greater than at the present time. As few persons anticipated that the extraordinary prices of 1899 would be maintained the subsequent depression gave the industry no permanent set-back, and the mining community is very well satisfied with prevailing conditions. Present prices are more than 100 per cent greater than prices five years ago, and the general tendency of the market seems to be upward, owing to the constant opening of new markets and uses for zinc products.

In 1898 what was considered a tendency on the part of the zinc smelters to keep down the price of ore, resulted in the organization of the Zinc Miners' Association, with headquarters at Joplin. Conditions at that time were such as to enable the smelters to practically regulate prices, which they did to their own advantage in some instances, and to the disadvantage of the miners. After a season, during which the Miners' Association exported considerable quantities of ore to Belgium at a loss, improved relations with the smelters followed, and relations between the producing and purchasing branches of the industry are now more satisfactory.

The district is frequently referred to as "the poor man's camp," and it seems that the title is not undeserved. In a great majority of mining districts poor men have practically no chance to operate after the field has once been thoroughly "proved up." Once the development stage is past, the poor man finds himself unable to go ahead, and is usually compelled to sell out to persons who can command capital. For years, now, in the Johannesburg field, all claims have been in the hands of a capitalistic combination, composed of multi-millionaires, which, until it is ready to operate them, lets them lie untouched, to the exclusion of any who may desire to work them. Peculiar conditions in the Joplin district render it difficult—some persons say impossible—for any combination that might be formed to control operations in the lead and zinc fields.

"Any company that tries it," said a prominent Joplin capitalist, who is thoroughly conversant with the situation, "will go broke sooner or later, and it probably will be sooner."

Then he went on to explain.

One reason—and it is a good one—is that the field is too large. It is difficult to conceive the organization of a company with sufficient capital to purchase or control, at the prices the owners hold it at, 600 square miles of land. Even if the money could be raised for such a purpose, there is no possible way by which dividends on the money invested could be paid. The chances are, on the contrary, that an attempt to develop the field would soon result in bankruptcy. While the entire district is theoretically mineral bearing land, it is only in certain localities that zinc or lead can—or has been—found in paying quantities. People who have made a study of the field are confident that the whole country is underlaid with both lead and zinc, in practically unlimited quantities; but undoubtedly much, if not most of it, lies at depths beyond present facilities. In time, there is no doubt that we will mine successfully at great depths, but at present, and for years to come, we will be compelled to pick our ground. At present most of the ore being worked lies just beneath the surface of the ground, and mining is rarely conducted at a greater depth than 150 feet.

"The district was developed in the beginning, and is still being developed by poor men. Conditions favor them, or rather, give them opportunity. There is not a property owner within the limits of the district but has a chance of leaving a lead or zinc deposit under his farm or town lot. It generally happens that these men either lack the means or are reluctant to take the financial risk necessary to prospect for ore. Therefore, they are willing to permit others to prospect on their land, in the hope that a profitable discovery will be made. Here comes the opportunity of the poor man. It, does not cost much to sink a prospect shaft, and miners, probably more than any other class of men, are deeply imbued with the speculative spirit. A number of miners, all of them working in the mines for daily wage, will club together, agreeing to pay each a certain sum daily or weekly, out of their earnings, to prospect. They will lease a piece of ground, and set a couple of men to work sinking a shaft. If they make a paying strike, they sell out to an operator, this class being composed of men of limited capital, who are able to work a prospect. If nothing is struck, the project is abandoned, and the miners regard their losses philosophically, taking another chance as soon as they can afford it.

"By this method, the operating mines, and a certain percentage of the wages of the district goes toward additional development. Capital is not called upon to risk until it has something tangible to operate upon. Then it takes hold. It is perfectly fair for all parties. If capital at tempted to prospect the district, it would fritter its substance away before the real business of ore production began. This has been the experience of those who have tried it, almost without exception. When I tell you that not over five per cent of the known mineral bearing land has been prospected, you will see that the poor man's opportunity has by no means passed away in the district. There will be room for him for a long time to come."

The method of conducting business in the district is unusual, but from its practical working seems entirely satisfactory. Nearly all the mines are operated under leasehold by the terms of which a percentage of the output goes to the owner of the land, and the remainder to the operator. Once a week the buyers for the smelters visit each mine, and bid for the weekly product. These buyers are experts in estimating the value of "jack" as the concentrated ore is locally called, and by merely glancing at a dump can tell almost its exact value. Every Saturday the "jack" purchased during the week is paid for. However, payment is not made to the mine operator, but to the owner of the land, who takes out his percentage and gives the remainder to the lessee. It frequently happens that after a tract of land is leased by a certain party, he will divide it into small lots and sublet them to small operators. This results in diversifying the interests, and prevents too much power over the destinies of the district from being concentrated.

Promptly at 5 o'clock every Saturday afternoon, the operators pay their help, which constitutes the great working force of the district; the weekly output of all the mines is about $200,000, of which probably $50,000 goes into the hands of the miners. From them it passes on into ordinary channels, and eventually the greater part of it reaches the shops.

It is interesting to be in Joplin on a Saturday night. The city, which is the commercial center of the district, has a population of 30,000, but on a Saturday evening thousands of people who work and reside in the other "camps" pour in to swell the crowds that throng the streets and fill the shops to overflowing. All the principal towns in the district are connected by electric railways, which makes Joplin easy of access from all directions, and from Saturday noon until long after midnight the trolley cars can with difficulty handle the passengers. The banks remain open until 11 o'clock and most of the business houses do not close until midnight. The streets are so densely thronged that one can only make way with the greatest difficulty.

Gambling places, saloons, and all places that afford amusement are liberally patronized. Fortunately, the miners of the Joplin district, while containing a small disorderly, or "tough" element, are considered the best in the world. The toughs are too much in the minority to seriously affect social conditions, and while an occasional street brawl occurs, the crowds are surprisingly well behaved. On the whole, it is a crowd of excellent appearance. When a miner leaves his drift, he doffs his working garb, and appears on the streets in the costume of a prosperous business man. The superior character of the miners in this district is due to the fact that they are principally drawn from the surrounding country. They came off the farms and out of the villages of Missouri, and their early training makes them good citizens. They are very different from miners in other parts of the world. There are comparatively no foreigners in the district, and labor troubles are almost unknown.

The reason for the absence of friction between the operators and the men who work in the drifts and mills lies in the fact that almost every miner has a personal interest in the future of the district. I have already mentioned the system under which the field is being developed. When half the miners in the district are directly interested in some prospect or mine, anything like a general strike is impossible. The men are not likely to strike on themselves. There are no miners' unions, not that the men are hostile to unions in general, but because they have not felt the need of them. Another element that makes for harmony between miners and operators is that both belong, generally speaking, in the same social class. Frequently the same man is both a miner and operator, and a great majority of the operators came out of the mines. Bear in mind that an operator in the Joplin district must not be confounded with the men who, from offices in New York city, virtually control the destiny of thousands of miners in the great coal fields. He is altogether another type. Usually he has not much wealth, and depends on the working of a small piece of ground for his living. He knows the miners intimately, and his point of view is the same as theirs. In fact, to put the matter in a nutshell, in the Joplin district the general policy is "live and let live," and natural conditions seem destined to perpetuate it. There is strong probability that during its existence the great Missouri-Kansas lead and zinc field will always deserve the title, "the poor man's camp.

Fortified against labor troubles, the bete noir of all other mining centers, by a system that gives every man an equal chance, the future of the Joplin district seems bright. In the opinion of experts, the field has hardly been scratched. The ore that lies near the surface is far from exhausted, and deep borings have revealed large ore bodies at great depths. Of course, the expense of mining increases as it goes down, but the introduction of improved methods and machinery have so far about equalized matters. Industries naturally associated with mining, and the manufacture of zinc and lead products, have shown a disposition to gather around the center of production. Seven large foundries and shops, which turn out every kind of mining machinery, are already located in the district, while immense plants which convert the raw product of the mines into marketable form are to be seen on every side. Nearly all the land in the district is extraordinarily rich for agricultural purposes, and it is a common thing to see land producing large crop, while vast quantities of ore are being at the same time taken from underneath the surface. The field has had a wonderful past, but its future promises to be still more wonderful.


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