200 Years of Illinois: Lead Is Galena and Galena Is Lead

lead minersOn September 30, 1822, the federal government gave the first lease to mine lead in the Galena region to Richard M. Johnson. They also provided armed soldiers as guards to dissuade the local Fox people from disputing Johnson’s claim.

Johnson, however, was far from the first to mine lead in the area. Native Americans had dug out surface deposits of lead for decades and did so well with it that French explorers caught wind of their industry. Pierre Charles Le Sueur, the first European to romp about Minnesota, visited the area for samples in the year 1700. Even he followed other Frenchmen. In 1780, Julien Dubuque—a man who lent his name to a city and meat products—set up mining and smelting works to ship the heavy metal down the Mississippi River.

Johnson was not Illinois’s first lead miner. The metal was taken, under dubious legal circumstances, as early as 1810. The Vinegar Hill Mine in Galena opened around 1822 via the industry of “an Irishman” and the region soon became a booming area for lead, drawing steamboats and, in 1855, the railroad. As the Mining History Association notes:

The early miners followed the surface diggings downward with conventional drilling and blasting mining methods. Ore cars were loaded by hand and either hand tramming or mules were used to transport the loaded cars to the shaft. On the surface, hand jigging was used to concentrate the galena. Initially the ore was roasted in heaps to recover the lead. Cupola furnaces were introduced in the 1820’s and Scotch Hearths around 1835. Cornish miners were instrumental in bringing much of the mining and metallurgical technology to the area.

The discovery of gold in California drew away many of the miners in the late 1840s. Lead mining fell off, though zinc mining in old galena mines revived area fortunes during World War I and World War II.