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Depiction in mural at Missouri State Capitol

Moses Austin and Samuel Hammond

In 1798, Moses Austin, a settler from Connecticut, obtained a Spanish land grant of one square league (approximately 3 square miles) of land after learning of the richness of the area’s rich mineral deposits. After bringing in equipment and workmen from Virginia, Austin began mining and smelting lead despite frequent problems with the neighboring Osage tribe.

In 1808 Moses Austin and Samuel Hammond laid out a town at the mouth of Joachim Creek. The purpose of the new town was to serve as a shipping point for the lead smelted at mines in Jefferson and Washington Counties. It is believed the town was named by Moses Austin, who called it Herculaneum because the limestone strata was so eroded that they resembled seats in the amphitheater of the ancient Roman city buried by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

The first post office in Jefferson County was at Herculaneum, established soon after the town was laid out, and it remained the only post office in the county for nearly thirty years.

By 1813 three shot towers had been constructed on the bluffs. A shot tower is designed for the production of shot balls by dropping molten lead through copper sieves. The balls were then caught in a water basin and taken to an adjoining building to be turned through cylinders to round and smooth the pellets for use as projectiles in firearms. On December 8, 1818, Jefferson County, along with seven other counties, was formed from parts of Saint Louis and Ste. Genevieve Counties by an "Act of the Territory" by the Missouri State Legislature and in 1819 Herculaneum was named as county seat.

Herculaneum Shot Tower

At this time Herculaneum was described as a town having between thirty and forty homes, three stores, a post office, a jail, a court building, and a school. Herculaneum's fortunes declined when the county seat was relocated to Hillsboro in 1839 and when the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway bypassed Herculaneum in the early 1850s. The community experienced a revival starting in 1887 when the St. Joseph Lead Company chose Herculaneum as a lead smelting site and the Mississippi River & Bonne Terre Railroad ran track into town.

In 1892 the first operation of the smelter begins with the operation of calcine furnaces, two blast furnaces, a refinery, and a powerhouse for the generation of steam and electricity. The smelting operations are the largest in the United States producing approximately 225,000 tons of refined lead annually and are operated by the Doe Run Company, which bought the operations in 1981.

Herculaneum is located on the bluffs of the west bank of the Mississippi River about 25 miles south of St. Louis. The terrain is full of hills and valleys and the community has very little flat land. Views from these bluffs overlook the American Bottom, a wonderfully fertile flood plain that extends for as many as four or five miles before bumping into small bluffs, on the Illinois side. Two nice places to catch these views are from the Dunklin-Fletcher Memorial Park on Main Street near the downtown area and the Governor Daniel Dunklin's Grave State Historic Site.

Herculaneum is also the birth place of Missouri's first native-born Governor, Thomas C. Fletcher