Tucked in a valley of the Cherokee National Forest , on the border of Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia, Ducktown once reflected the beauty of the surrounding Appalachian Mountains. Instead, Ducktown and the valley known as the Copper Basin now form the only desert east of the Mississippi. Mined for its rich copper lode since the 1850s, it had become a vast stretch of lifeless, red-clay hills. It was an early and stark lesson in the devastation that acid rain and soil erosion can wreak on a landscape, one of the few man-made landmarks visible to the astronauts who landed on the moon.
Prospectors came to the basin during a gold rush in 1843, but the closest thing to gold they discovered was copper, and most went home. But by 1850, entrepreneurs realized the value of the ore, and a new rush began to mine the area. Within five years, 30 companies had dug beneath the topsoil and made the basin the country's leading producer of copper.
The only way to separate copper from the zinc, iron, and sulfur present in Copper Basin rock was to roast the ore at extremely high temperatures. Mining companies built giant open pits in the ground for this purpose, some as wide as 600 ft (183 m) and as deep as a 10-story building. Fuel for these fires came from the surrounding forests. The forests must have seemed a limitless resource, but it was not long before every tree, branch, and stump for 50 mi2 (130 km2) had been torn up and burned. The fires in the pits emitted great billows of sulfur dioxide gas—so thick people could get lost in the clouds even at high noon—and this gas mixed with water and oxygen in the air to form sulfuric acid , which is main component in acid rain. Saturated by acidic moisture and choked by the remaining sulfur dioxide gas and dust, the undergrowth died and the soil became poisonous to new plants. Wildlife fled the shelterless hillsides. Without root systems, virtually all the soil washed into the Ocoee River, smothering aquatic life. Open-range grazing of cattle, allowed in Tennessee until 1946, denuded the land of what little greenery remained.
Soon after the turn of the century, Georgia filed suit to stop the air pollution which was drifting out of this corner of Tennessee. In 1907, the Supreme Court, in a decision written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, ruled in Georgia's favor, and the sulfur clouds ceased in the Copper Basin. It was one of the first environmental-rights decisions in the United States. That same year, the Tennessee Copper Company designed a way to capture the sulfur fumes, and sulfuric acid, rather than copper, became the area's main product. It remains so today.
Ducktown was the first mining settlement in the area, and residents now take a curious pride not only in the town's history, but in the eerie moonscape of red hills and painted cliffs that surrounds it. Since the 1930s, Tennessee Copper Company, the Tennessee Valley Authority , and the Soil Conservation Service have worked to restore the land, planting hundreds of loblolly pine and black locust trees. Their efforts have met with little success, but new reforestation techniques such as slow-release fertilizer have helped many new plantings survive. Scientists hope to use the techniques practiced here on other deforested areas of the world. Ironically, many of the townspeople want to preserve a piece of the scar, both for its unique beauty and the environmental lesson of what human enterprise can do to nature , as well as what it can undo.
[L. Carol Ritchie ]
Barnhardt, W. "The Death of Ducktown." Discover 8 (October 1987): 34-6+.