Copper Mines & Smelters

Tennessee's "Copper Basin" is located in Polk County at the southeastern corner of the state.  Copper ore was first mined there in the 1840s, and sent by wagon to Dalton (Georgia).  By the mid 1850s, Copper Road had been completed from Ducktown to Cleveland, where rail service was available via the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad.  Copper smelters began operation in conjuction with the Tennessee mines during the 1850s, allowing some of the raw ore to be locally processed into metallic copper.

The expense of mining operations led to the consolidation of several smaller companies into a few larger, more efficient firms, such as the Burra Burra Copper Company (organized in 1860).  Julius E. Raht, a German engineer, emerged as the leading manager of Burra Burra and other major copper companies in the area.

Fear of the possibility of war led to the establishment of a copper rolling mill at Cleveland, Tennessee by the  Tennessee Rolling Works Company, headed principally by William H. Peet, John Thomas, and George S. Cameron.  Prior to this, the entire output of the Ducktown mines was sold to northern refineries since no manufacturing plants for converting Tennessee ingots into finshed copper products had been established in the South up to this point.  The mill at Cleveland filled this void, producing such copper products as sheets, bars, bolts, and rivets.

Polk County provided most of the copper used by the Confederacy during the Civil War.  Fortunately for the fledgling Southern nation, the war came just as the newly consolidated industry at Ducktown experienced its first flush of renewed energy following the inefficient output during its merger period.  The mines were producing all the ores that could be treated, while new smleters capable of higher output were erected.  While output remain relatively high throughout Confederate use of the mines and mill, Ducktown did face some handicaps, including, a scarce supply of provisions and mine supplies, a greatly depleted operating crew due to men leaving to fill Union and Confederate ranks, and a lack of enthusiasm for payment in Confederate currency.  Even so, Ducktown continued to supply the Confederate government with its much needed supply of copper.

Fortunes, however, changed when the ET&G railroad at Cleveland fell under Union control in 1863.  The loss of a system of transport caused the mines to cease operations until the end of the war.  In addition, the invading Union army destroyed the rolling mill at Cleveland soon after occupation of the area commenced.  Thus, the Union effectively cut Confederate access to a major source of copper.

The loss of the Ducktown mines greatly effected the Confederate Ordnance Bureau since fully ninety percent of the South's copper came from these mines.  Josiah Gorgas, head of the Confederate Ordnance Bureau, had come to depend on Ducktown entirely for the South's suppy of copper.  Copper was a critical military commodity used in the production of cannon--when the Tennessee copper source was suspended, Confederate cannon makers at the Tredegar works in Virginian eventually developed a heavier but still satisfactory iron cannon.

After the war, Tennessee's copper industry expanded enormously, but not without severe environmental costs, denuding thousands of acres in Polk County.  Copper mining ended in 1987, and the landscape began a slow recovery.  Today the Burra Burra Mine and portions of Ducktown and Copperhill are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

For further information on copper mines and smelters in Tennessee see the bibliography.

  Civil War Technology & Industry in Tennessee

Last update:  December 8, 2000