Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Copper Mining in the Smoky Mountains

Many of us would be surprised to learn that copper mining was once a very big business in the southern Appalachian or Smoky mountains… We certainly were!  It all happened in the southeast corner of Polk County Tennessee, just north of the Georgia state line.  The area is normally called the Copper Basin although some people refer to it as the Ducktown Basin. 

The two brick buildings shown in the above photo are the hoist house and the boiler house for the Burra Burra Mine.  These buildings are on the lower level of the property included in today’s Ducktown Basin Museum.  The larger building was being used for pre-Halloween pumpkin sales…a fund raiser for the museum. 

In 1843, a miner panning for gold instead came up with nuggets of native copper and by 1847, the first mule train laden with casks of copper ore made its trip out of the basin to Dalton Georgia.  By 1853, a road, (now TN Hwy. 64), had been carved out through the Ocoee River Gorge to Cleveland Tennessee and the railroad.  The road was the primary method of moving the ore from the valley until the 1870’s.   
Here is a photo of the Burra Burra mine that was taken in 1916.  The hoist and boiler houses look small in comparison to the other structures on the site at that time.  In 1860, several small mines were combined to form the Burra Burra Copper Company.  Lacking a cost-effective means of transporting the ore from the Copper Basin, that company went out of business in the late 1870’s.  By the late 1880’s, the Marietta and Georgia Railroad built a spur line to the Basin from Cleveland Tennessee.

By 1899, the Tennessee Copper Company had bought up most of the mines in the Copper Basin and they began work on the Burra Burra Mine in Ducktown.  FYI, the Burra Burra Mine was named after a famous mine in Australia.
Isn’t this a pretty view?  Laurie took this photo from the hill above the hoist and boiler houses.  It’s hard to believe that this verdant sea of greenery was once the center of a massive mining effort.  Over 15,000,000 million tons of copper were extracted from just this mine alone. 

By 1858, the numerous small mines in the Basin had been consolidated into 3 larger mining companies, the Union Consolidated Mining Company, the Ducktown Copper Company and the Burra Burra Copper Company.  As the mines were all owned by northern industrialists, they were closed down during the Civil War.  The miners went off to war.  There was a little mining by the Confederacy during 1863…but then the Union Army took back the Basin.
This is another photo of some of the equipment used in the mining operation at the Burra Burra Mine.  Little or no strip mining was done in the valley.  Shafts were dug or bored that reached depths of up to 3,200 feet and they tapped 3 major veins of ore.

Just in case you’re curious…the Cherokee village of Kawana translates in English to ‘Ducktown’.  The Cherokee Village of Ducktown first appears on a list of Indian towns in 1799.  Legend has that there was an Indian Chief named “Duck” although it can’t be proven. (As of the 2010 census, the town has a population of 487) Note: For a time, the town was also called Hiawassee…
There are a total of 10 of the mine’s original structures located on this museum’s property.  The Burra Burra Mine ceased all operations in 1959 and the center of mining in the Basin shifted to the Central Mine in Copperhill Tennessee.  By 1987, all mining had ceased in the Basin.  The Burra Burra mine site, along with the surrounding 300 acres, was set aside as a special historic district and it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
This is the chemist’s building at the Ducktown Basin Museum.  In addition to copper, the mines produced sulfuric acid and copper sulfate as well as iron and zinc concentrates.  Other products, most of which I’ve never heard of, include: granulated slag for use in cement; copper salts for chemicals; Ferri-Floc for water and sewage treatment; Sinter for steel and pig iron, plus; a little silver and gold as impurities from the smelting process.  
This is the former Engineer’s building at the Burra Burra Mine.  As you can see, it’s now the home of the Ducktown Basin Museum.  Admission is only $4.00 per visitor… For more on the museum as well as its displays and activities, just go to  Laurie and I had a nice chat with a very informative volunteer member of the staff while we were in the hoist house, aka., the pumpkin sale building.

As you can imagine, this was a very busy community for many years.  It had to feel like the end of the world when the mining ended in 1987.  However, due to the mining itself as well as the need for fuel and the smelting process, the area definitely looked more like the end of the world at the end of the 1800’s and into the early 1900’s. 
This massive sinkhole is a collapsed mineshaft that can be viewed from a platform near the museum’s visitor center.  The water in the sinkhole is very green…as the result of minute particle of copper ore that are suspended in the water. 

As a bit of background, back in the early years of copper mining, the only known way to smelt copper…extract copper from the ore…was to use the ‘open roast’ method.  The ore was piled up with stacks and stacks of wood and the whole thing was set on fire to extract the copper.  This process required huge amount of timber for fuel and the gases produced really demonstrated just what ‘acid rain’ could do to the environment.
For the most part, the scenery around the basin is now lush and green…with few obvious signs of the ecological disaster that the mining had caused.  What you see in the above photo…as well as the previous photo near the boiler and lift houses…is the result of many years of focused environmental recovery efforts.
By 1936, the Tennessee Copper Company was the only company operating in the Basin.  The company provided housing for the miners.  When promoted, a miner would move to another house higher up on the hill.  Then someone would move into his old house.  The company store provided food, clothing, and hardware items.  Purchases were deducted from paychecks.  Unfortunately, many miners never got out of debt.
This is what the “Burra Burra Desert” looked like near Ducktown from around the beginning of the 20th Century.  Over 50 square miles, (32,000 acres), around the Basin had been totally denuded of all vegetation and animals… Nothing could grow or survive.  The trees had been cut down for smelting and the sulfuric acid from the smelting process killed everything else. (Can you imagine living here?) The mining companies even built 325 foot smokestacks in an effort to disperse the acid.  All that accomplished was to spread the damage. 

Under the threats of many lawsuits from individuals, the State of Georgia and the Federal Government, the mining companies either had to find a solution for the acid rain or close up shop.  Company scientists figured out how to trap the acid and produce sulfuric acid…which eventually became more a more important product than the copper itself!
The Basin is green once again, thanks to the planting of over 16 million trees and the use of aircraft in the spreading of acid tolerant grasses and legume seeds in addition to lime and fertilizer.  The Tennessee Valley Authority and the mining companies initiated the efforts to reclaim the land.  In 1941 the TVA even established a large Civilian Conservation Corp camp to accelerate the process.  For more photos of the Basin back in the ‘good old/bad old’ days, just go to:
Just click on any of the photos to enlarge them…
Thanks for stopping by and traveling along on our East Tennessee drive along the back roads of America!
Take Care, Big Daddy Dave


  1. This was really interesting!! I've never heard of copper mines being in the south. Breathing that air must've been horrendous, not to mention the look of the land with all the mining. It's great that the area is green now. Thanks for the post, I enjoyed reading it!

  2. When I first moved down here, the area was still pretty barren compared to now - looked a little like a moonscape then.

  3. I enjoyed this and the pictures David!!