Historic Ducktown Basin: A landscape transformed

Authored By Jenni Frankenberg Veal

The Ducktown Basin in the southeastern corner of Polk County, Tenn., was once an expanse of red dirt that lay gullied and bare because of copper and sulfur mining operations. Copper was discovered there in 1843, shortly after the Cherokee Removal; and for the next 150 years, various mining, refining and manufacturing operations dominated the landscape.

A 75-square-mile-long geologic formation, the Ducktown Basin became home to one of the Southeast’s largest metal mining operations, employing more than 2,500 people at its peak. Mining began in 1850, and nine oil deposits were mined throughout the area.

Before 1890, when railroads aided in transportation, mules and wagons were used to haul thousands of pounds of copper along the Old Copper Road between Ducktown and Cleveland, Tenn. It’s a storied past, featuring characters such as copper hauler George B. Barnes, a well-regarded fiddle player who-between 1860 and 1878-was known to play the fiddle to soothe his mules along the treacherous journey. Legend has it that his fiddling worked every time to inspire overburdened teams of mules.

Today, Barnes’ battered fiddle lies quiet at the Ducktown Basin Museum at the former site of the Burra Burra Mine, and the Ducktown Basin has transformed from a barren red moonscape to a quiet town blanketed in forests of green. Perched along the steep banks of the former mine, overlooking reclaimed ridges and valleys, the museum offers an important perspective on the region’s cultural and environmental history.

“The history of the Copper Basin and the role that sites like this play in our nation’s history are important to understand, and just as important are the reclamation efforts,” said Ken Rush, director of the Ducktown Basin Museum. “These types of sites did not occur within one generation’s time and can take multiple generations to reverse. However, we have the ability, if we are dedicated to see it through.”

From the late 1800s until the 1980s, copper mining, processing, sulfuric acid manufacturing and waste disposal occurred at the Ducktown Basin site, which is part of the North Potato Creek and Davis Mill Creek watersheds and a 26-mile-long reach of the Ocoee River.

Copper smelting-the process of separating copper from rock-is credited with doing most of the environmental damage in the Ducktown Basin in the 19th century. The process required wood to fuel the smelters, and there was no wood left in the area by 1876. Logs were floated down the Ocoee River from Fannin County, Ga., and about 50 square miles within the Ducktown Basin had been stripped of vegetation by 1878.

Additionally, the smelting process released sulfur, which formed sulfur dioxide that rained down as sulfuric acid, destroying the remaining vegetation. Without trees and undergrowth, topsoil began to erode, huge gullies formed, and very few plants and animals survived. Tens of millions of cubic yards of soil washed into area waterways.

“It is the worst-case example of soil erosion, with loose soil on a slope in an area that gets a lot of rain,” Rush said. “Everything just washed away, literally.”

Waste-handling practices at the site resulted in contamination of sediment, soil and surface water with chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls, arsenic, copper, iron, lead, manganese and zinc.

Mining operations ended in 1987, and sulfuric acid manufacturing production ended in 2000. In 2001, the Environmental Protection Agency and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation began negotiating legal agreements with past companies to investigate and clean up the Ducktown Basin site. Occidental Petroleum Corporation, through their subsidiary Glenn Springs Holdings, is funding cleanup and environmental restoration activities on the 1,400-acre site.

According to Rush, Glenn Springs Holdings built water treatment plants to treat underground mine waters and stormwater runoff, continued tree planting efforts, built fencing around areas that are a risk for humans, and identified and remediated all human health hazards. They continue to treat area creeks before they discharge into the Ocoee River.

“Glenn Springs Holdings’ overall task was to bring area watersheds up to state water-quality standards,” Rush said. “They have completed almost all of the work on North Potato Creek and are still working on Davis Mill Creek.”

North Potato and Davis Mill creeks flow into the Ocoee River, and both waterways have been treated for nearly a decade.

“To date, there are no known human health hazards remaining in this environment,” Rush said.

Interestingly, the transformation of the landscape from barren to lush has created a sense of loss for some residents who grew up during mining’s heyday in Ducktown.

“The landscape and environment we grow up in becomes ‘normal,'” Rush said. “There is a sense of loss with some older community members because the landscape that they grew up with is now gone-they had an area that was unique.”

Once Glen Springs Holdings completes their active reclamation work, the land will be deeded to the Ducktown Basin Museum, a Tennessee Historical Commission state-owned historic site. According to Rush, the museum plans to operate the land as a day-use recreation and hiking property.

Today, visitors to the Ducktown Basin Museum-the only state-owned industrial heritage site in Tennessee-can view artifacts from former mining operations and a collection of historic photographs and documents. The museum also maintains an inventory of mining company records.

“Places like the Burra Burra Mine site built this country,” Rush said. “The materials that came from sites such as this built the standard of life that we take for granted today.”

To learn more, visit the Ducktown Basin Museum website.

Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a Chattanooga-based writer and naturalist who enjoys promoting the region’s historical, cultural and natural assets through her work with the Southeast Tennessee Tourism Association. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.