Mining The Copper Basin
In Southeast Tennessee
The Tellico Plains Mountain Press
Photos By Jack Waters
Downtown Ducktown, Tennessee looking down
from the Burra Burra Mine site. Ducktown &
Copper Hill are located in southeast Tennessee
in Polk County, near The GA/NC border.
Copper was discovered there in 1843. This discovery would impact the lives of Copper Basin residents for generations. Population growth, land speculation, numerous mine openings and other related activities led to the boom of the area by the early 1850s. However, no one knew that the state-of-the-art technology being used at that time to process copper would have devastating effects on the environment. In fact, the devastation was so great the Copper Basin was once considered the largest man-made biological desert in the nation. Over 50 square miles (32,000 acres) was stripped of vegetation resulting in mounds of soil being washed away with each rainfall. Sulfuric acid fumes filled the bowl-like topography and led to the nations first look at the long-term effects of acid rain.
The Ducktown Basin, or Copper Basin, is located in the extreme southeast corner of Polk County, Tennessee. Three veins of copper run through the basin and each attracted several mining companies ready to exploit the resource.
The early inhabitants of the Basin were Cherokee Indian farmers who were hunters and produced some copper. By the Treaty of New Echota in 1836 they gave up many of their lands, including those in the Copper Basin. Many of the Indians who remained in the Basin after the treaty were removed by the U.S. Army in 1838 during the Trail of Tears.
Because there were no roads into the Basin, settlement was slow to occur. The first white settlers came to the area to farm, but until 1839 there was little white settlement. That year, prices were lowered from the starting price of $7.50 an acre, which had been established when the land was surveyed after the Indian Removal, to only $l an acre. The farming community of Pleasant Hill was founded around 1840 east of present-day Copperhill, the first organized settlement in the Basin.
The lack of roads into the Basin increased its isolation and prevented economical shipment of goods outside the Basin and helped retain an agricultural lifestyle. The earliest recorded shipment of copper out of the Basin occurred in 1847 when shipped, by mule, 90 casks of copper to Dalton, Georgia, the nearest railroad. It was shipped north of the Revere Smelting Works near Boston.
In 1851, the Copper Road between Hiwassee and Cleveland began to be constructed in Bradley County and was completed in 1853. Now copper could be taken economically by copper haulers to Cleveland for shipment, and other goods could be brought back into the Basin. Copper haulers would make this journey in two days, spending the night at a halfway house. On the return trip from Cleveland the wagons were usually loaded with merchandise for the stores, and with mining supplies. The original road was used throughout the 1800s as the only way to ship copper out of the Basin. (The road route was later used for part of U.S. Hwy. 64.)
In 1857 only five mines were operating regularly -- the Tennessee, Marys, Isabella, Eureka, and Hiwassee. In 1858 the mines in the Basin began to consolidate into three large companies -- the Union Consolidated Mining Company, the Burra Burra Copper Company, and the Ducktown Copper Company.
The Civil War disrupted work at the mines, as the miners left to fight in the war and the mines closed down. Many mine interests and smelting plants were owned by northern industrialists who closed the mines in late 1861. The confederacy gained control of the Basin in 1863 and sold the mines to southern capitalists to provide the south with needed copper. The mines were operated at a reduced capacity through the end of 1863 when Federal troops again gained control of the area. After the Civil War the miners and their families returned, the damage to the mines was repaired, and mines reopened. The Burra Burra and Union Mines were reopened in 1866, the first to do so.
The Copper Basins ore is three deep seams and could only be extracted by deep shaft mining, a dangerous activity. Dynamite charges used to loosen ore could cause cave-ins and many miners lost their lives in the mines.
In the late 1870s most of the mining companies in the Basin began to fail because of a lack of adequate transportation and decreasing quality of ore. The cost of transporting the ore would have been greatly reduced by rail. Without rail transportation it became uneconomical to ship copper.
The copper mines in the Basin were idle for more than ten years until the Marietta and North Georgia Railroad built a spur line north to the area. The arrival of the railroad ended the isolation of the Basin and made transportation of people and products easier.
The Georgia spur was met soon by the spur from upper Tennessee. The major obstacle in the Tennessee line was the Hiwassee River gorge, with a 426-foot difference in the height between the north and south shores of the river. George Eager of the Knoxville Southern Railroad designed a switchback to eliminate the obstacle. The switchback was located near Farner, Polk County, Tennessee. The completed rail resembled a W built up the river gorge.
These two lines consolidated in 1890 as the Marietta & North Georgia Railroad. It passed into receivership in 1891 and was reorganized in 1895 as the Atlantic, Knoxville, and Northern Railroad Construction Company (AK&N). In 1896 it was finally incorporated and began to run the rail line.
In 1890 the Ducktown Sulphur, Copper and Iron Company (DSC&I) of London, England, re-opened the Mary mine and built a furnace with a l00-ton-a-day smelting capacity.
In 189l the open roast heap smelting process of copper was begun. This process, and the high sulfur content in Polk County copper, created sulfuric acid fumes which, combined with the timber cut as fuel, destroyed vegetation in the Basin.
They replaced the cumbersome switchback at the Hiwassee Gorge with a loop around Bald Mountain in the gorge. The loop was necessary because a train could pull only three or four cars up the switchback, and a pusher train was needed to help get the trains up. This was very time consuming at a time when the line was getting more traffic. T.A. Aber, a civil engineer with the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, designed a loop around Bald Mountain, in the middle of the Hiwassee River, to eliminate the switchback. The loop, over 8,000 feet long, would circle the mountain one and a half times up a passable grade until it reached the plateau height near Farner north of Ducktown. Trains began running over the loop in 1898 and continue to do so today.
By 1899 the Tennessee Copper Company had bought or leased mines from most of the other mining companies in the Basin. They built a new smelter in McCays (renamed Copperhill) and built a railroad between Ducktown and the smelter. They began a new mine, the Burra Burra near the Hiwassee Mine site.
Two lawsuits involving the Basin Copper industry occurred at this time in 1904 by landowners. Tennessee courts ruled that the value of the copper companies contributions to the county out-weighed damages they caused. Before the copper industry came to the area, there were only around 200 residents. The court noted that, at that time, the open-roast heap method of smelting was the only known smelting method.
In 1906 in Georgia vs. Tennessee Copper Company, the Supreme Court heard Georgias claim that TCC was taking away its sovereign rights of control over its land and air. Georgia was seeking an injunction preventing TCC from using the open roast heap method. The Court found for Georgia but did not issue the injunction because by then TCC had begun construction of an acid reclamation plant near Copperhill. Eventually, sulfuric acid replaced copper as the companys major product.
Within two decades of the ruling the first efforts would be made to reclaim the barren landscape. Those efforts would continue into the 1990s.
Once looking more like Mars
than East Tennessee. Over 50
Sq. miles were stripped
Another technological advancement which occurred in the Basin was a way to extract iron compounds from the copper ore. This allowed the companies to retrieve iron, copper and sulfuric acid from the mines.
Reforestation efforts began in the 1920s and 1930s and concentrated efforts began in the 1940s. Early efforts were carried out by the mining companies and TVA. Hundreds of acres of pine were planted between 1939 and 1944.
In 1941 the TVA established a CCC camp in the Basin to enhance their tree planting efforts. The CCC workers built dams, planted trees, and covered the ground with straw to prevent runoff. Six- teen buildings existed in 1941; all that remains are ruins of some foundations and leveled sites where the buildings stood.
Later owners of the copper mines and acid production facilities were Cities Service and Tennessee Chemical Company. Throughout the 1980s, the vast company land holdings began to be sold off. In 1987, the copper mines were closed and sulfur was brought in by rail for acid production. Tennessee Chemical Company filed for bankruptcy. The production facilities were purchased by Boliden Intertrade AG, a Swiss company, and renamed B.I.T. Manufacturing.
The Burra Burra Mine Pit today...Notice the Reclamation
Efforts Have proven to be Successful. The Goal is to Have
Complete Reclamation by the Year 2000.
The Copper Basin is steadily returning to the healthy, green landscape that disappeared close to a century ago. More than 16 million trees have been planted to reclaim the land. Acid-tolerant grasses and legume seeds have been spread over the area by helicopter. Lime and fertilizer have also been applied to the land. A 1988 study found that soil loss had declined . Reclamation is working, but there are still many acres to be reclaimed. The goal of the partnering agencies and organizations is to have complete reclamation by the year 2000.