Acid rain devastates Tennessee’s Copper Basin

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 11, 2014

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.

Copper Basin, Polk County TNOriginal caption reads: Copper mining section between Ducktown and Copperhill, Tennessee. Fumes from smelting copper for sulfuric acid have destroyed all vegetation and eroded the land.

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.


acid+rain Tennessee+Copper+Company Copper+Basin Polk+County+TN appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history

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Listen Here: Appalachian History Weekly podcast posts today

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 10, 2014

We post a new episode of Appalachian History weekly podcast every Sunday. Check us out on the Stitcher network, available on mobile phones, in-car dashboards and tablets worldwide. Just click below to start listening:

We open today’s show with an interview featuring Andrew Talkov, VP of programming at the Virginia Historical Society. Talkov is the curator of the traveling exhibit ‘An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia,’ on loan from the Virginia Historical Society. The show had its preview reception last week at the William King Museum of Art in Abingdon, VA, where it will remain on view until February 1, 2015.

We’ll pause in between things to catch up on a calendar of events in the region this week, with special attention paid to events that emphasize heritage and local color.

Next, NC poet Hilda Downer offers up her book review of the recently published Voices from the Headwaters: Stories From Meat Camp, Tamarack, & Sutherland, NC. “People from almost anywhere,” she tells us, “will recognize the faces and stories of relatives in WWII, the first appearances of Model-T Fords, the hard and rewarding work of living on a farm, and the love amid family gatherings. The stories are not just Appalachian and not just American. They are universal and show how connected such an isolated region is to the rest of the world.”

We’ll wrap things up with guest author Jennifer Cox, who has been the coordinator for the heritage dancing at WV’s Vandalia Gathering for the last 20 years. “As an adult I have tried to keep Scottish and Irish dancing alive,” she says, “by working through 4-H to reach out and teach what I was taught. The most interesting part of the dancing, for me, is the stories behind the dances. I would like to share some of that with you.”

And thanks to the good folks at the Internet Archive, we’ll be able to enjoy some authentic Appalachian music from Bill Helms’ Upson County Band in a 1928 recording of Alabama Jubilee.

So call your old Plott hound up on the porch, fire up your corncob pipe, and settle in for a dose of Appalachian history.

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The curator speaks about ‘An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia’

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 8, 2014

Andrew Talkov

Andrew Talkov

The following is a partial transcript of an interview conducted by Leila Cartier, on the WEHC 90.7 radio show Artspeak, with Andrew Talkov, VP of programming at the Virginia Historical Society. Talkov is the curator of the traveling exhibit ‘An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia,’ on loan from the Virginia Historical Society. The show had its preview reception last evening at the William King Museum of Art in Abingdon, VA, where it will remain on view until February 1, 2015. Interview questions have been left out.


I got my BA from Rutgers in 1995 in history and secondary education. While at school I had an opportunity to work during a summer as a paid volunteer at Gettysburg National Military Park. It opened an entire world of other options for history majors to me. I spent the next two summers working at the Manassas National Battlefield. The museum world was much more accepting of my education background and my experience than school systems were of my park experience. I took the path of least resistance, as we usually do! While working here at the Virginia Historical Society I recently returned to school to get my MA in history.


This project is the culmination of all my interests. I grew up in MA outside of Boston. I’m a Yankee, yes. The history I grew up with was a lot of Revolutionary War history; that’s what that area of MA is really proud of. At age 10 one of my teachers encouraged me to watch the TV mini-series ‘The Blue & The Grey.’ I was fascinated by the idea that people would fight a war against each other just because they lived in different states. The first ‘civil war’ that I knew was an intergalactic one, since I’d been a huge Star Wars fan from a much younger age.

The Virginia Historical Society is a private non-profit museum and archive in Richmond. Founded in 1831, it’s the 4th oldest historical society in the country. It’s Virginia’s longest, continuing operating civic organization. Chief Justice John Marshall was our first president, and then former president James Madison was our first honorary member.

Since then our mission has been to collect and preserve the Commonwealth’s history. In the last 20 years we’ve opened the doors of the institution to be more accessible the public, so we’ve been a lot more focused on interpreting Virginia’s history, too.

Our collection includes 8 million manuscripts, 200,000 books, 290,000 prints and photographs, and 32,000 museum objects that document the daily lives of all Virginians.

I came to the Historical Society in 2007, and I was specifically hired to help the curators select objects and find stories to tell. Over the course of time I ended up taking more responsibility as a writer and consultant with design, working on audio-visual programs.

Curator Andrew Talkov installs exhibit panels. Photo Robert A. Martin/The [Richmond] Free-Lance Star.

Curator Andrew Talkov installs exhibit panels. Photo Robert A. Martin/The [Richmond] Free-Lance Star.

I’ve been designing a Civil War exhibit in my mind since I was 10! So this project was like being a kid in a candy store. The Historical Society has a great collection of Civil War objects, letters, and diaries.

One of the challenges was that we were charged with creating a display that would be on continual display for the entire 4 year length of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

As a result, we weren’t able to show some of the best things that we had for that length of time. We ultimately decided that the stories that we could best tell, that our collection supported, were the stories of everyday people. Initially there was this sense that the exhibit would be all of the great Civil War objects of Virginia history collected from institutions all over the country.

Instead, what the exhibit became was an exhibit about ordinary people during extraordinary times doing extraordinary things, as told through relatively simple objects that they left behind.

It’s a little cliché to quote Abraham Lincoln…but I’m gonna go there! Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863 summed up why the Civil War is important. We fought our civil war at a time in world history where we were the only republic — ‘a government of the people’— and many of the countries and kingdoms around the world were watching this experiment with the expectation that we would fail. That ‘a government of the people’ was not possible.

So when Lincoln speaks at Gettysburg he is saying that this war is about whether representative government could survive. The war proved, and 150 years of history after that proved, that it could. Unfortunately, we had to pass through this incredibly tragic crucible to prove that.

No event in Virginia’s history had as much to do with shaping the political, the social, and even the physical landscape that we all live in. I drive down the highway and I see signs for a battlefield, or I see a historic highway marker that identifies the home of some famous person who was related to the Civil War.

 WmKing Civil War exhibit

The social, economic and political legacy of slavery, and then segregation, absolutely affects us to this day: the fact that Virginia was the most fought over place in America (and still holds that crown); the fact that they had to reconstruct huge portions of the state; that the Valley was burned out of a lot of its economic infrastructure, that Richmond burned at the end of the Civil War, and that affected the physical landscape that came after.

And lastly, Virginia spent many, many decades trying to recover from the loss of its population. It started the American Civil War as the most populous of all of what would become the Confederate states. But due to death and dislocation, Virginia lost a huge portion of its population, and of course your population is the economic engine that makes a state successful.

All of these are reasons why the war is so important to Virginia even today. It’s important to remember that the Civil War is, with a few exceptions, the last event in our history where war happened here. Looking at the experiences of people who lived 150 years ago, who were literally surrounded by the conflict, whose daily lives were ultimately affected by the conflict at both grand and small levels, gives us the opportunity to empathize with people around the world who live in an environment similar to what those Virginians lived in.

Today we can’t even imagine what a foreign army marching down the main street of our towns would be like.

A lot of what we historians do is look backwards, and when the sesquicentennial was being planned, we looked at the last major commemoration of the war, which was in the 1960s. Virginia was a very different place in the early 1960s. We were embroiled in the unanswered question of the Civil War at that time, which was: “What was the status of African Americans going to be in the Republic, and in our state?”

Wm King Civil War exhibit 3

The Centennial, the 100th anniversary, didn’t really try to answer any of those questions. The Centennial celebrated the War, and re-union, by focusing on what I would argue is the easy thing to interpret about the Civil War, which is the battles and the generals. It’s a lot harder to understand the social and political implications of our Civil War, and they were largely ignored in the interpretation and the educational programs of 50 years ago.

Now that we are here in the beginning of the 21st century, the sesquicentennial seemed like an opportunity to use the last 50 years of scholarship to express where we’ve come in our understanding of this event. As a result, our exhibit is very different from an exhibit you would have seen 50 years ago. It focuses on ordinary people. It has expanded the idea of the Civil War in Virginia to include men and women, enslaved people and free people, African Americans, and children. A lot of peoples’ stories that were marginalized in the historiography of the Civil War for 100 years are now being brought to life.

It ultimately is a much more dramatic story because of the inclusion of all these other people and their experiences. The exhibit is about 150 million free Virginians, it’s about almost half a million enslaved Virginians, it’s about 280,000 men who fought for the Confederacy, but it’s also about the 50,000 Virginians who fought for the Union. It includes the story of other people, Union and Confederate, who came to Virginia and experienced their war here. So they’re as much a part of Virginia history as someone who was born in Virginia.

The exhibit focuses both on the battlefield and the home front. We are trying, 150 years after the event, in this exhibit, to get a more complete understanding of the war and the way it affected people.

Wm King Civil War exhibit 2

Virginia’s location as the largest of the northernmost slave states made it a key state during the war. When we look at a map today we see a much smaller Virginia than the people of 1860 would have seen. Virginia at that time went all the way to the Ohio River. It included everything that is today West Virginia. So it was this huge state with this huge population that lived on the border between North and South. It was a very industrialized state, very much like its northern neighbors, but it was also the largest of the slave states, which made it very much like its southern neighbors. Virginia’s economy and population size made it an important place.

The Confederacy would probably not have been able to survive as long as it did had Virginia remained with the Union states in 1861. It was critical to the Confederacy to have Virginia join them in this struggle, and the way they cemented that relationship is that when Virginia seceded from the Union, the Confederacy moved their Capitol here.

Which seems like the dumbest thing that you could do! You’re playing a game of ‘Risk’, putting your capital right next to the other guy’s capital. And what it assured is that Virginia would be the battleground of the war, and Virginians knew it. Historians will argue about it, but I think it’s safe to say that it was the most important battleground. A lot of people will say that the Civil War was won/lost along the Mississippi River, which strategically might be true, but nobody was looking at that. Everybody in Europe, everybody in the country, was looking at the 120 miles between Washington and Richmond.

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Birth of Country Museum Opens

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 7, 2014

by Robert K. Oermann — full article on the MusicRow site.

In the summer of 1927, Victor Records talent scout Ralph Peer discovered two of country music’s most enduring superstars, and that historic event is commemorated in a new museum.

Bristol, the small Appalachian city that straddles the state line between Tennessee and Virginia, staged a weekend celebration for the opening of its Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, the $12 million museum honors Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family and the other 17 artists recorded by Victor during those 1927 recording sessions. The Bristol Sessions have been called “The Big Bang of Country Music.”

Photo includes: Lt. Gov Ron Ramsey, Jim Lauderdale, Roni Stoneman, Georgia Warren. Photo: Mary Bufwack

Photo includes: Lt. Gov Ron Ramsey, Jim Lauderdale, Roni Stoneman, Georgia Warren. Photo: Mary Bufwack

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Book Review: ‘Voices from the Headwaters’

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 7, 2014

hilda downerPlease welcome guest author Hilda Downer. Downer is an Appalachian poet who grew up in Bandana, NC. She works as a nurse with severely traumatized children. She is a member of the Appalachian Studies Association, NC Writers Conference, and the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative. Her most recent book of poetry, Sky Under the Roof, was published by Bottom Dog Press in 2013. She lives in Sugar Grove, NC.


In the tradition of the admirable Foxfire Books and their archive of oral histories collected by students, some fine books have sprung from that catalyst. Sitting on the Courthouse Bench, for example, edited by Lee Smith, records the memories of the people of Grundy, VA, before a dam was to be built which would have literally flooded out the town and its stories. Now, following suit is Voices from the Headwaters: Stories From Meat Camp, Tamarack (Pottertown), & Sutherland, NC published by the Center of Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University, Boone, NC; edited by Patricia Beaver and Sandra Ballard with associate editor, Brittany Hicks.


In collaboration with the Elk Knob Community Heritage Organization (EKCHO), Appalachian State University students have for more than a decade collected the remembrances of mountain life as it used to be at the headwaters of the New River’s North Fork – beginning at the gap between the Elk and Snake Mountains in Watauga County, including the area in between Boone, Mountain City, and Jefferson in Ashe County, NC.

The interviews gathered by the students of Patricia Beaver in Sustainable Living classes at ASU help clarify what hardship and joy the people of this area come from. Here are the stories of several generations, from those who first settled to those living in the present day. While dispelling the specific myth that one might get shot that dissuades even local people from visiting Pottertown, these stories collectively help diminish mountain stereotypes altogether.

People from the area might remember where the white farmhouse in a field with the big silo once cornered the junction of 194 and 421; New Market Center now proudly hails customers, with the silo left standing. They might recognize the band, The Dollar Brothers, from local festivals and venues. However, people from almost anywhere would recognize the faces and stories of relatives in WWII, the first appearances of Model-T Fords, the hard and rewarding work of living on a farm, and the love amid family gatherings. The stories are not just Appalachian and not just American. They are universal and show how connected such an isolated region is to the rest of the world – and how affected the region is on a global level.

The book also chronicles the formation of the Elk Knob State Park and the subsequent annual Elk Knob Headwaters Community Day. The state park includes the Elk Knob Summit Trail, a steady climb with idyllic views and unique stone “chairs” that invite one to rest along the way. The Elk Knob Summit Community Day celebrates the tradition of the mountain community coming together with food, crafts, and music. The celebration is representative of how hard times past did include potluck dinners provided by the good cooks in the community, and is a lot of fun. Among the many things that attendees can partake in is to learn how to make a corn shuck doll, taste apple cider pressed fresh right in front of them, and listen to local well known musicians whose talent further connect this community to the outside world.

Voices From the Headwaters includes stories of people shaped by and connected to place. Now that the place, Elk Knob, is preserved as a state park, the stories of the people from this area are now preserved in this book as well. The book itself carries on the mountain tradition of storytelling. As more young people set out to gain their own sustainable houses and farms, they need these stories to learn and gain inspiration from. The point of the entertainment of storytelling, after all, was to teach or learn something from the past in order to use it in the present and future. This book is not just for the sake of the people telling the stories or the students that collected them. Their stories are for our sake and the sake of the young people’s future.

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