The Copper Basin of Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee
In the 1960s, Apollo astronauts used three man-made markings on the planet to navigate from space. . . the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Egypt and the Copper Basin in Tennessee / Georgia. According to VAT, it was even after 30 years of replanting trees in the basin to try to recover the earth. But let’s not anticipate the story.
There was once a beautiful area about 50 miles wide and 50 miles long that covered the eastern corner of Tennessee, part of western North Carolina, and some of the mountains of northern Georgia. The forests were dense and beautiful. Rapid streams and the Toccoa / Ocoee River flowed through the area. The fishing was exceptional. The Cherokees had lived, hunted and prospered there. It had to be as beautiful as any place we see today in the mountains of North Georgia and Tennessee.
Once upon a time, Mr. Lemmons, a prospector looking for gold in a small stream just off Potato Creek, thought he had found the mother sill. Instead, he had discovered copper ore. His discovery changed the history of this region forever. The year was 1843. Interestingly, evidence found in 1880 suggests that the Cherokees mined and used copper long before the miner’s discovery in 1843.
Once upon a time . . .
From beautiful beauty to desolate beauty
Copper was a valuable commodity in the mid-1800s, and miners and mining companies flocked to the area which became known as the Copper Basin (aka Ducktown Basin). The miners used pickaxes, shovels and hand drills to extract the ore. Over time, miners have followed the copper veins deep underground. What they brought out of the earth was ore mixed with both high grade copper and low grade iron. At its peak, more than 12 mines were established, working independently to extract as much copper as possible from the ground.
Preparing the copper ore that miners mined for sale was a five-step process. First, the copper and iron ores were separated from the sulfur. The ore was smelted using a process new at the time called the open roast pile melting process. The ore was roasted on large piles of wood for up to three months. During this time, iron and copper ore were separated from sulfur dioxide which was turned into gas. The sulphurous gases settled on the vegetation, killing everything it touched and in the waters, killing fish and poisoning the water. Rainwater washed away all the topsoil. According to AppalachianHistory.net, “The nation had its first glimpse of the long-term effects of acid rain.”
Further steps were necessary to separate the copper from the iron. By the late 1800s, all the trees in an area of 40 square miles had been cut down and used for roasting. Only the hills and valleys of red clay remained. The area looked like a wasteland.
Worse still, the sulfuric smoke from the fires floated continuously above the basin. The Tennessee Valley Authority (VAT) described the smoke as an everlasting fog that was too thick to see through. “The mules wore bells so they wouldn’t run into each other. “
According to the museum exhibits now housed there, the area has received “the scientific designation of ‘Ducktown Desert’. Eventually, over 50 square miles of land was devastated or damaged to varying degrees. Interestingly, there were those who saw the beauty in the scarred landscape. World famous Georgian artist Lamar Dodd has visited the area on several occasions to paint the landscape. He was drawn to “the variety of colors and shapes” out there. Those who grew up in the area also saw the beauty in the destruction. Most had never seen the area covered with plants and trees and instead loved the red hills and the “desolate beauty” of the area.
Reclaim the land
Due to the damage to the land and water supply systems in the area, TVA took on the task of helping to reclaim the land. When the VAT first appeared in the 1930s, shortly after its creation, the destruction of the territory had lasted for 90 years and seemed irreversible. Over 23,000 acres of land had been ruined by the mining process and reduced to red clay.
Over the next 70 years, TVA planted trees – millions of them. Bulldozers were used to break up the first two feet of clay and treat the earth with lime. Helicopters were used to treat the soil with fertilizer and seeds were strewn over the area. The teams planted trees by hand.
The recovery process did not happen over time. It has taken over 70 years and over 16 million trees planted to restore forests, restore the integrity of water systems, and see the environment become healthy again.
Why visit Copper Basin
Today, the region’s main asset is tourism, as people return to fish and raft in streams and rivers, buy apples and enjoy the mountain air. During the restoration process, 1,000 acres were left alone so that visitors could see the severe damage to the land caused by mining. And a museum has been established to allow visitors to see the historical history of the region.
My husband, Bob, and I took our 16 year old grandson, Nate, to visit him. Nate considered becoming an engineer, and we figured visiting an area that had been so devastated by bad decisions and a lack of long-range planning might be interesting for him. Our son Scott told us that if Nate took pictures while he was there we would know he was really involved in the story. We were delighted with his interest, his questions and his comments.
As has often been said, “If we don’t learn from history, we are destined to repeat it.” For future generations, it is important that they reflect on what it means to be the stewards of the earth in order to preserve it for generations to come.
All the details
The names Copper Basin and Ducktown Basin are used interchangeably. Coppertown, Georgia, and Ducktown, Tennessee, lie on either side of their state’s borders. The demarcation line runs along the main street that separates the two towns.
The Ducktown Basin Museum is located at 212 Burra Burra Street, Ducktown, Tennessee, 37326. Admission is $ 5 for adults; $ 4 for seniors; $ 2 for 13 to 17 year olds; and $ 1 for children 12 and under. The hours vary according to the season. Check the website for updated schedules.
The museum includes an interesting video, exhibits and historical artifacts. Outside the museum is a walking path with displays of copper ore and mining equipment along the way. The tour can take around an hour or more if you like to read it all.
An added attraction is the possibility to visit the mineral collecting area behind the museum. The area contains three dump trucks of ore from the ore silos at the central pit. The cost is $ 12 per person. The museum does not provide any tools or supplies for the collection. Visitors should bring their own.