In August 1843, a Tennessee gold prospector working on Potato Creek discovered a reddish-brown and black decomposed rock that contained deep red crystals; his “gold” turned out to be red copper oxide. At the time, this copper deposit was one of the world’s largest finds.
The Hiwassee Mine opened in 1850, and within 5 years the Tennessee, Mary’s, Isabella, and Eureka mines were operating full swing. The Copper Basin, a 75-square-mile long geologic formation, was fast becoming home to the Southeast’s largest metal mining operation, employing more than 2,500 people at its peak.
Who could have foreseen that the largest man-made biological desert in the nation would emerge out of this economic fervor?
By 1861, trees were becoming scarce in the Basin. Wood was needed to fuel the smelters. The Polk County ores contained significant sulfur content. When roasted, the sulfur was released, forming sulfur dioxide, which later rained down as sulfuric acid. After the trees had been cut, the gases from the open smelting destroyed the remaining vegetation.
By 1876, there was no wood left in the immediate area. Logs were floated down the Ocoee River from Fannin County, GA to fuel the smelters. By 1878, about 50 square miles had been stripped of vegetation. Without trees and undergrowth, the top soil began to erode and huge gullies formed. Very few plants or animals survived. The nation was getting its first look at the long-term effects of acid rain.
Starting about 1885, the State of Georgia began filing lawsuits because of the damage to its timber and crops.
By 1899 the Tennessee Copper Company (TCC) had bought or leased mines from most of the other mining companies in the Basin. It built a new smelter in McCays (renamed Copperhill) and in 1904 placed its headquarters in the town.
That same year, TCC erected smoke stacks 150 feet tall to solve the acid rain problem, and in 1905 erected a 325 foot stack. The stacks helped locally but dispersed the gases over an even wider area. Instead of settling lawsuits, this tactic created more lawsuits from a broader area.
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 Georgia’s claim that TCC was taking away its sovereign rights of control over its land and air. Georgia sought an injunction preventing TCC from using the open roast heap smelting method, and the Supreme Court granted it in 1907.
This injunction, had it been enforced, would have probably meant the end to mining, which in turn would have killed the Basin economically. TCC mining engineers instead proposed the idea of condensing the gases to produce sulfuric acid. Georgia officials agreed to wait and see if the new process would help the situation.
“The Tennessee Company is erecting an acid plant to make low-grade sulphuric acid out of the fumes from the blast furnaces,” said Walter Harvey Weed in ‘The Copper Mines of the World,” in 1908. The company built two acid plants, in Isabella and Copperhill, which did in fact contain the sulfur dioxide output.
And so, even though the Court had found for Georgia, it did not instate the injunction. Ironically, sulfuric acid ultimately replaced copper as TCC’s major product. In 1942, TCC built a large sulfuric acid plant at Copperhill.
Within two decades of the acid rain ruling the first efforts were made to reclaim the barren landscape. 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.
In 1941 the TVA established a CCC camp in the Basin to enhance their tree planting efforts. Hundreds of acres of pine were planted between 1939 and 1944. The CCC workers built dams, planted trees, and covered the ground with straw to prevent runoff.
Today, the Burra Burra Mine Historic District is on the National Register of Historic Places. The State of Tennessee purchased the site in 1983, making it the first state-owned historic industrial site.
The district stands as a stark example of the devastating environmental damage that stems from unplanned, unregulated large-scale industrial development.