At the southern tip of the Great Smoky Mountains is a rich copper deposit with a history of conflict and innovation to out-do that of the Malakoff Diggins. The Burra Burra Copper mine and its contemporaries are commemorated in the Ducktown Basin Museum.
The Ducktown Basin (or Copper Basin) is a valley in the southern Appalachian Mountains, along the borders of Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia. Copper was discovered in 1843, by a prospector who had been in search of gold. Yet, the discovery was the beginning of an extensive history of copper mining in the region. Despite a general lack of roads for easy transportation, Hiwassee Mine opened near the site of the original discovery in 1850.
The Burra Burra Mine
While small scale mining developed in the area over the 1850s, many of these were consolidated into the Burra Burra Copper Company in 1860. The mine and company were named after another mine in Australia. Yet, lacking a cost effective way to transport the ore out of the basin, Burra Burra and other operations failed over the 1870s. It wasn’t until rail came to Ducktown in the early 1890s—in the form of the Marietta & North Georgia Railroad and the Knoxville Southern Railroad—that mining resumed.
The Tennessee Copper Company had consolidated most of the mines by 1899. To process the mined ore, the company built a smelter in Copperhill, TN, south of the mine and right on the border with Georgia. Unfortunately, this open roast smelting method released devastating amounts of sulfur dioxide. Along with massive deforestation to fuel the smelter, the sulfur dioxide and resulting acid rain destroyed 32,000 acres around the basin. Nearly all the vegetation was wiped out. It was not until loosing a series of law suits brought by Georgia farmers and the state itself—whose farms were also suffering from the sulfur dioxide—that the company began recapturing the sulfur dioxide.
The sulfur dioxide reclamation process actually proved advantageous to both sides. Not only were Georgia farms spared the destructive rain, Tennessee Copper Company converted the poisonous gas into sulfuric acid. With sulfuric acid, the company was able to successfully market this new product for fertilizers and and many other goods.
1958, Burra Burra Mine ceased operations in response to increasing foreign competition. By the time of its closing, the mine had extracted 15.6 million tons of copper. More mines closed over time, concluding with a sulfuric acid plant in Copperhill closing in 2000—though, by then, it had been sourcing materials elsewhere.
From 1850 to 1987, copper mining in the Ducktown Basin employed thousands of people. nine separate ore deposits were discovered in the area.
Today, Ducktown is a far cry from the “red desert” that had become so familiar to miners and their families. Forest reclamation projects have cleaned the land and planted 16 million trees—resulting in today’s colorful views of the Burra Burra Mine.
Local citizens came together to preserve their mining history in 1978 opened the Ducktown Basin Museum with donated items. The Ducktown Basin Museum is located on the site of the former Tennessee Copper Company headquarters, which had operated from 1899 through 1975. The property encompasses and preserves 16 structures from the original mining operation. Across the parking lot is an observation deck formed from a decommissioned mine elevator overlooking the collapsed and flooded Burra Burra Mine and the valley that gives the region its name. Artifacts on display are all stored in the former mine office.
The Museum encompasses mining tools, community records, and local art inspired by the mine. While no mining museum is complete without displays of historic mining helmets, lights, and drills, what makes this museum special is the inclusion of high school photos, and other pieces of home from the miners lives. Most impressive, at least demonstrative, is the samples of all the products that were sold out of Duck Basin.
This community continues to represent this mining district in a profoundly human perspective. Like many small, rural, and younger mining museums, the Ducktown Basin Museum has an immediacy to the history as it is staffed by people who are retirees or related to former miners. They can talk about what it was like to grow up running along rolling, desolate hills cleared of wildlife by acid rain and having parents who made a living through the mines. The museum even includes local artistic representations of the mines and area such as models of miners and a painting of the landscape, ravaged by acid rain and yet maintaining a desolate beauty.
A Close Call
While earlier prospectors may have been disappointed to not find gold around Ducktown, they were not far from their aim. Just a 40 minute drive north on the TN 68, travelers can arrive in Coker Creek where gold has and continues to be panned.