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Lead was discovered in the Joplin Creek Valley before the Civil War, but only after the war did significant development take place. By 1871, numerous mining camps sprang up in the valley and resident John C. Cox filed a plan for a city on the east side of the valley.Cox named his village Joplin City after the spring and creek nearby, which had been named for the Reverend Harris G. Joplin, who settled upon its banks circa 1840.

Carthage resident Patrick Murphy filed a plan for a city on the opposite side of the valley and named it Murphysburg. As the nearest sheriff was in Carthage, frontier lawlessness abounded in Joplin. The historic period was referred to as the "Reign of Terror". The cities eventually merged into Union City, but when the merger was found illegal, the cities split. Murphy suggested that a combined city be named Joplin. The cities merged again on March 23, 1873, this time permanently, as the City of Joplin.

While Joplin was first settled for lead mining, zinc, often referred to as "jack", was the most important mineral resource. As railroads were built to connect Joplin to major markets in other cities, it was on the verge of dramatic growth. By the start of the twentieth century, the city was becoming a regional metropolis. Construction centered around Main Street, with many bars, hotels, and fine homes nearby. Joplin's three-story "House of Lords" was its most famous saloon, with a bar and restaurant on the first floor, gambling on the second, and a brothel on the third. Trolley and rail lines made Joplin the hub of southwest Missouri. As the center of the "Tri-state district", it soon became the lead- and zinc-mining capital of the world.

As a result of extensive surface and deep mining, Joplin is dotted with open-pit mines and mine shafts. Mining left many tailings piles (small hills of ground rock), which are considered unsightly locally. The open-pit mines pose hazards, but some find them to have a kind of beauty, as well. The main part of Joplin is nearly 75% undermined, with some mine shafts well over 100 ft (30 m) deep. These mine shafts have occasionally caved in, creating sinkholes. The mining history and geology are well documented in the mineral museum in town.

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