The Heritage of Mining in Western Kentucky

Crittenden County is believed to be the first place in Kentucky where the mineral fluorspar was mined. The Illinois-Kentucky Fluorspar District is located in Crittenden, Livingston, and Caldwell counties of western Kentucky and adjacent Hardin and Pope Counties in southern Illinois. The western Kentucky Fluorspar District was mined prior to the Civil War.  In 1836, President Andrew Jackson  was part owner of the Columbia Mine, located 41/2 miles W-NW of Marion, where night digs are now conducted.  The main purpose of this mine was to extract galena for the lead and silver content (approximately 2 oz of silver per ton of galena). Fluorspar was also recovered from the mine but there was no market for it at the time.  Not until 1873, were uses for fluorspar recognized in lowering the melting temperature of iron to remove impurities (flux) during smelting.  Since mining began in 1873, the Western Kentucky Fluorspar District has produced about 3.5 million tons of fluorspar, 70,000 tons of zinc, 12,500 tons of lead, and 45,000 tons of barite concentrate.  Trace elements such as silver, copper, cadmium and gallium have also been recovered.  Thirty percent of the fluorspar came from the Tabb Fault system, a major curvilinear fault in southern Crittenden County.(Trace and Amos, 1984)

Economics has always played an integral part in the business of mining. Between 1900 and 1950, the use of fluorite in steel, aluminum, chemicals, glass, and nuclear processes gave birth to hundreds of mines that supplied, by river and rail, over 40 percent of the world’s needs.

After 1950 a tremendous influx of inexpensive foreign fluorspar sharply curtailed domestic production.   Subsequent years have resulted in the progressive loss of the steel, aluminum, and chemical industry to overseas firms putting to rest an industry that had vigorously led the world in production.

There are only a couple of operating mines today.  Plans to expand the mining operations in the future are underway.  It is believed that there are still substantial reserves of fluorspar, lead, and zinc in deep deposits.

Regional History

Early in the history of the District, there were shallow seas that left deposits of limestone and sandstone in layers.  As the continents began to push out of the seas and tectonic plates moved across the earth’s crust, there were earthquakes, faulting, folding, and volcanic events in the area.  The Hicks Dome explosive magmatic event occurred in southern Illnois.  This event released magmatic and hydrothermal fluids that were rich in metals such as sphalerite, galena, barite and calcium into the crust below the surface.  Over time, these hydrothermal fluids dissolved in water to form brines that mixed with hot fluorine-rich magmatic gases, resulting in precipitation along cracks in the fault systems of the area. This precipitation with time resulted in the formation of the minerals and crystals found in the district.

Migrating Indians discovered the soft, colorful deposits of fluorite in the forests of what is today the Southern Illinois and Western Kentucky Fluorspar Region. Using stone-age technology, they were the first to fashion ornaments and carvings from the mineral. Some of these objects are on display in the museum today.  Unknown to them, were the secrets of fluorite, that in the years to come would give rise to a global industry.