Rural Missouri Magazine

An Underground Education
UMR uses an experimental mine
to train the next generation of miners

by Jim McCarty

Mine Manager Jim Taylor enters the old section of the experimental mine operated by the University of Missouri-Rolla. The timbers are just for show. This section of the mine is used for haunted mine tours in October.

The students in Jerry Tien’s class look bored. The University of Missouri-Rolla associate professor is doing his best, but the material is tough and dry.

He talks about how elevation causes changes to air pressure. He explains oxygen concentration levels. He shows how to use instruments like an altimeter.

The dozen students in his mine atmosphere class take careful notes. But their minds are on the second half of the class when they will leave the classroom for a unique laboratory used by UMR’s mining students.

They will head underground, armed with hard hats and battery-operated head lamps, to record data in the university’s experimental mine. Located just a mile or so off the Rolla campus, the mine is one of only a few such facilities located on university campuses in the United States.

This class splits into groups of three and heads to various positions deep inside the mine. As they leave the light behind, a strong draft of cold air chills their faces and hands. A powerful fan pumps the air into the mine. The air flow is there for ventilation, and if this were a real mine it would be there to save their lives.

Methane and other gases can collect in underground mines. Someday these students might have the job of maintaining air flow in commercial mines. Their task on this day is to conduct a pressure survey to ensure the mine is safe for workers.

Later the data will be assembled and plotted on a computer to create a picture of the mine ventilation. Then the students can play “what if” scenarios. For example, if a new shaft was bored in the rock how would that affect the air flow? Or if the mine was enlarged would more air need to be moved?

Students in Jerry Tien’s class take airflow readings inside the mine. Classes like this one give UMR students real-world experience.

“It’s kind of unique,” says Tien, who came to UMR in 1985. “You look at other college mining programs. A couple of them have mines but they are not as close to the campus. Penn State uses the basement of one of their buildings. The Colorado School of Mines has one but it’s 30-40 miles from campus. That’s a day-long trip at best. We are very blessed to have this mine.”

UMR was founded in 1870 as the Missouri School of Mines. The college was created to serve the state’s booming mineral industry. Missouri’s mineral wealth is so vast that it was responsible for much of the early settlement of the state. In fact mining has been a part of the state’s economy for 275 years.

As early as 1804 those involved in the industry were petitioning the Civil Commandant of the Upper Louisiana Territory for advanced training in mining. But the first official proposal for such a school came in 1865 at the request of Gov. Thomas Fletcher.

While other disciplines were added to the mining program, it wasn’t until 1964 that the School of Mines name was dropped in favor of the University of Missouri-Rolla designation. Today UMR is the state’s leading engineer training program, and mining engineering is still a major part of the curriculum.

It seems logical that the state’s School of Mines would have its own mine. But it wasn’t until 1914 that one was created.

Land for the mine was purchased on the outskirts of Rolla on Bridge School Road. In 1921 a horizontal opening was made into limestone bedrock to begin the mine. Several structures were also started, including buildings to house a steam boiler, air compressor, blacksmith shop and a mine hoist.

Most of the mine’s pillars and rooms were completed by 1945. Three vertical shafts were sunk. An adjacent quarry offered practice in surface mining. The original buildings were refurbished during the next four years and a new mine office and warehouse was built in 1949.

In its early days the mine had rails for ore cars.

By now the mine was getting so much use that more land was required both above and below ground. An additional 12 acres of land was purchased in 1949, bringing the mine site to 19 acres.

Two years later work started on the west section of the mine. The ventilation fans were added in 1956 and a second quarry was opened.

Students and faculty members conducting research shared time at the site. Their research included rock mechanics, drilling, blasting and explosives testing. As the mine’s use continued to grow, work on extending the mine to the east began. In time a second mine would be opened and a fourth shaft bored.

A classroom was built on site and an extensive collection of mining equipment donated by manufacturers provided additional opportunity for hands-on education. Today every aspect of mining technology takes place at the experimental mine, guaranteeing UMR students leave the university ready to enter the workforce.

On any given day students might engage in surveying to lay out expansion for the mine. They might practice drilling into the dolomite walls of the mine. Some classes learn to use explosives while others gain experience quarrying crushed stone. Experiments are carried out to determine just what happens to rock under pressure.

Mining equipment welcomes visitors to UMR's underground classroom.

“This is something that distinguishes us from the other mining students out there,” says Peter DuBois, a UMR student from St. Charles. “We get hands-on experience. We drill through real rock, not concrete blocks like at other universities. That dilutes the experience.”

While the latest high-tech mining practices are put into place and often invented here, students also have an opportunity to experience mining as it was practiced in the days when Moses Austin opened the first lead veins at Potosi in 1798. The college’s mucking team challenges other universities to see who is best at traditonal skills ranging from sawing railroad ties to filling ore carts by hand to drilling holes with a sledge hammer and a star drill.

UMR also boasts the only college-based mine rescue team in the nation. The team competes against professional teams organized by commercial mines around the world.

The rescue team works with self-contained breathing apparatus that can extend the time underground by cleaning and recycling exhaled air. In their competitions the teams must solve rescue scenarios that might include going through flooded areas of a mine.

Training like this can be invaluable in the real world where mine disasters do happen.

Another unusual aspect of the mining program is the Rock Mechanics and Explosives Research Center. Important research into the use of explosives sponsored by the government and industry offer more valuable experience to graduate and undergraduate students.

Members of the UMR Mine Rescue team use high-tech equipment like this breathing apparatus to learn rescue skills. Adam Kresler tests the equipment before a team event.

The university also offers a pyrotechnics course, which is taught at Richland. In this course UMR students learn to build and set off firework displays. Students have put together shows for Missouri towns like Richland and Blue Springs.
But the mine isn’t just for students and faculty. It also serves a vital role in educating the public about the important role mining plays in the state. “If it can’t be grown it has to be mined” is the slogan of the state’s mining industry.

“People don’t realize all the mining-derived products out there,” Tien laments. “When you think of cars you think of Ford, GM, Toyota. You don’t think about mining and all the steel and aluminum it takes to make them. We are very glad to be providing things people need.”

And the many tour groups that visit the experimental mine learn first hand how true that motto is. Visitors, ranging from school groups to tourists who wander off I-44 and find the Rolla Visitor’s Center, watch a movie and then don hard hats for a trip through the mine led by Jim Taylor, the mine’s manager.

In October the mine is the setting for a scary haunted mine tour that raises money for student field trips and food donations for the Russell House, a local crisis center for women and their children. In its first year the haunted mine tour brought in $5,500 and it has been a tradition ever since.

While no valuable mineral deposits other than fool’s gold have been found at the mine, its value comes from something else. It’s creating the next generation of miners and giving them a leg up on the competition when it comes to landing a job in the shrinking market for mining industry employees.

“We have fewer and fewer people but they are becoming more efficient,” says Tien. “I was in the coal industry in the ’70s. Average tons per shift was 350 to 400. Now it’s 4,000 to 5,000. In a way we are working our way out of a job.”

The mine is open to the public for tours by special arrangement made at least two weeks in advance. For more information call (573) 341-4753.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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