2022 Mining History Association




Burra Burra Mine State Historical Site,

Ducktown Basin Museum

Ducktown, Tennessee

June 21, 2022




When the Mining History Association announced that its 2022 annual conference was to be held in Birmingham, Alabama, we realized that on the way we could make a small detour and visit the famous Copper Basin in Ducktown and Copperhill, Polk County, Tennessee.  The Basin was the largest copper producing district in the southeastern U. S. until the mines and plants closed in 1987.  Its total production is estimated to be over 90 million tons of ore containing copper, iron, zinc, sulfur for producing sulfuric acid, and an array of other chemical products.  Our visit focused on the Ducktown [Copper] Basin Museum, the Burra Burra Mine State Historical Site, and several of the reclamation project sites in the Basin courtesy of Glenn Springs Holdings.   


The history of the Basin will only be summarized here.  The Ducktown Basin Museum, the references cited below, and scores of other publications tell a much more complete history.  This area was Cherokee land until their removal in 1836.  Native copper was discovered by a gold prospector in the southeastern corner of Tennessee in 1843.  In 1847, the first copper ore was shipped from the diggings by mule train 70 miles to the nearest railroad in Dalton, GA, and then to the Revere Smelting Works in Boston.  The Hiwassee Mine in today’s Ducktown was the first deep mine, opening in 1850.  By 1853, the Old Copper Road was constructed through the Ocoee River Gorge to allow wagons to reach the railhead in Cleveland, TN.  In 1860, the German-born mining engineer, Julius Eckhardt Raht, consolidated several mining properties into the Ducktown Sulfur, Copper, and Iron Company (DSCIC), a British firm.  He also formed the Burra Burra Copper Company.  It was named for the Australian mine of the same name.  In 1861, a copper refinery and rolling mill were erected in Cleveland, TN. 


Shortly after the Civil War began, the Confederate government confiscated the mines to supply the copper used for rifle caps for the Confederate Army; however, Union forces destroyed the railroad, refinery, and rolling mill in 1863.  This halted production, depriving the Southerners of this critical metal for the rest of the war.  Following the war, the mines reopened and prospered with improved mining methods and equipment but the high cost of transportation caused them to close again in 1879.


In 1889, the railroad finally reached the Basin and mining resumed.  In 1899, the Tennessee Copper Company (TCC) purchased most of the mines in the Basin and constructed a smelting facility at Copperhill, 3 miles south of Ducktown.  Years of cutting timber for fuel and sulfur dioxide fumes from open heap roasting of the ore, left the hillsides of the basin bare and subject to severe erosion.  Some called it the Ducktown Desert.  In 1907, farmers sued the DSCIC which operated a smelter at Isabella and was TCC’s competitor, for crop damage and forced it to build an acid plant to recover the sulfuric acid.  TCC built its first acid plant at Copperhill.  This was the start of chemical manufacturing in the Copper Basin.  In the 1920s, the flotation process enabled the production of zinc and copper concentrates. The two companies merged in 1936 retaining the TCC name.  Employees lived in the company towns of Ducktown and Copperhill, and in smaller settlements near some of the mines.  Strikes in the late 1930s led to unionization of the previously non-union district.


Following the heyday of World War II demands for metals and chemicals, the Basin began to decline.  TCC changed its name to the Tennessee Chemical Corporation in 1982.  Cities Service purchased the company in 1963 and in 1983 it was itself acquired by Occidental Petroleum Corporation (OXY).  Foreign competition, declining ore grades, labor unrest, and increasing environmental concerns brought about closure of the mines and plants in 1987.  The Copperhill sulfuric acid and some chemical plants continued to operate until 2000 using imported materials.


The story of the Copper Basin wasn’t quite over.  The legacy of environmental damage would require a massive cleanup effort.  The impacted area was so large, 36 square miles, that the astronauts could spot it from outer space.  That effort in the mining areas is spearheaded by Glenn Springs Holdings, LLC., a subsidiary of OXY.  Copperhill Industries is leading the cleanup at Copperhill.  Although OXY had never mined ore in the Copper Basin, it inherited the liability for the cleanup through its acquisition of Cities Service.  Some of the impressive results of that effort are seen in the third photo gallery.


You know you are in Mining Country when you catch a glimpse of the Central Mine Headframe as you head into Ducktown, TN. It is the last remaining headframe in the Copper Basin.  (Kaas, 2022)

Our first stop was the Burra Burra Mine State Historical Site and the Ducktown [Copper] Basin Museum.  The knowledgeable staff and volunteers provided a wealth of information and shared their personal experiences of life in Ducktown. (Kaas, 2022)

The Burra Burra Mine began production in 1900 and shut down in 1958.  It produced 15 million tons of copper ore.  This early photo shows the headframe at the left and the hoist house at the right.  Although the headframe is gone, the rest of the buildings can be seen on the museum’s Walking Tour (covered in Photo Gallery 2).

The Burra Burra shaft reached a depth of 2400 feet.  Water filled the mine after the shutdown.  This led to the collapse of the ground above part of the mine workings as seen from the museum overlook. (Kaas, 2022)

This museum exhibit illustrates the geology of the Copper Basin and the alignment of the 9 tabular ore bodies in the extensively folded structure of Precambrian metamorphic graywackes and schists.  The size of the deposits ranged from 250,000 to 20 million tons.


CLICK HERE for plan views of the Burra Burra Mine and ore body.  (USGS, Emmons, et al, Professional Paper 139, Plate 26, 1926)


CLICK HERE for cross-section views of the Burra Burra Mine and ore body. (USGS, Emmons, et al, Professional Paper 139, Plate 28, 1926)

Over geologic time, an iron-rich gossan formed at the top of the orebodies, above the water table.  Below that, a relatively thin enriched layer of “black copper ore” formed. It was mainly chalcocite (Cu2S) and contained as much as 20% copper. It was the target in early mining and rapidly exhausted.  The deeper massive sulfide ore constituted most of the production from the mines in the Copper Basin.  (USGS, Emmons, et al, Professional Paper 139, 1926) 

The massive sulfide ore in this 12 inch museum specimen was composed of pyrrotite (FeS), pyrite (FeS2), sphalerite ((Zn, Fe)S), magnetite (Fe2O4), and chalcopyrite (CuFeS2).  The typical Burra Burra ore contained 2% copper, 28% iron, 25% sulfur, and 1.5% zinc.  The total production from the Burra Burra Mine was15 million tons of ore.

Mining methods evolved over the years of production. This museum diagram shows a typical 1960s era mining stope using sub-level, longhole stoping.  Blast holes are drilled from sub-levels. The broken ore dropped down to funnel-shaped mill holes with draw points where slushers scraped it to loading points in the haulage drift below.  Mine trains hauled the ore to the shaft for hoisting to the surface.

This sign contains the bell codes used to signal the hoist man who raised
 and lowered a cage or skip in the winze (internal shaft) at the Calloway Mine.

The museum exhibits and its archival collection contain countless photos of mining and processing in the Copper Basin. These miners are drilling at the face during the time when carbide lights were used underground.

The modern personal protective equipment - hard hats, hearing protection, and self-rescurers - tell us that this photo of miners boarding the cage was taken during the latter years of mine operation.

Because of its remote location, transportation was the key to profitable mining. Initially, the Old Copper Road constructed along the Ocoee River was used by wagons carrying copper ingots to the railroad in Cleveland, Tennessee.  It followed the route of today’s US Highway 64.  Finally, the Knoxville Southern Railroad and the Marietta and North Georgia Railroad built a line to the mines in 1889.  This ensured the future of mining.  The route followed the Hiwassee River Gorge and looped around Bald Mountain on its way from Etowah to Copperhill. (Above).

This modern flow diagram of ore to final products shows some of the complexity of the metallurgical and chemical plants in the Ducktown-Copperhill district.  The principal products were copper (blister copper destined for a refinery and copper shot for copper chemical manufacturing), zinc, iron pellets, and sulfuric acid.  Another museum display breaks down the large number of chemical products that were produced.  Some of the iron pellets made their way to the iron furnaces in Birmingham, our final destination during this trip .

Decades of timber harvesting for smelter fuel and the sulfur dioxide fumes from open roasting of the sulfide ore left a 36 square mile legacy of the deforestation and extensive soil erosion in the Copper Basin shown above.  The Burra Burra Mine is at the center with Ducktown at the lower right.

Early environmental court rulings and 1907 legislation forced the construction of acid plants to recover the sulfur dioxide but it would take decades to see substantial progress. The barren hills were referred to as the “Tennessee Desert” and the “Ducktown Desert.”  Astronauts could see the devastation from outer space.  Reforestation efforts began in the 1930s and are still underway. Fortunately, substantial progress has been made (covered in Gallery 3).  The Isabella Mine area is at the center.
Updated October 10, 2022  

Illustrations courtesy Ducktown Basin Museum unless otherwise attributed.



The Ducktown Basin Museum website.  Accessed June 16. 2022, https://ducktownbasinmuseum.com .


R. E. Barclay, “Ducktown Back in Raht’s Time,” (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1946).


W. H. Emmons and F. B. Laney, “Geology and Ore Deposits of the Ducktown Mining District, Tennessee,” U. S. Geological Survey, Professional Paper 139, (Washington: GPO, 1926). Accessed September 18, 2022, https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/pp139.


Maurice Magee, “Geology and Ore Deposits of the Ducktown District, Tennessee,” Ore Deposits, V.1, (New York: AIME, 1972) pp 207-241.  Accessed on OneMine, September 18, 2022.


John V. Beall, “Copper in the U.S. – A Position Survey,” Mining Engineering, (New York: SME/AIME, 1973), p. 38. Accessed on OneMine, September 18, 2022.










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