Copper Basin (Polk County, TN)

Back to Gallery

Copper Basin (Polk County, TN)

Copper Basin (Polk County, TN)

The Copper Basin in the southern Appalachians consists of 32,000 acres in Polk County Tennessee and Fannin County Georgia, near the state border with North Carolina. Not a true basin, this area is a cluster of low hills surrounded by mountains, a geologic formation that resulted in nine distinct copper deposits.

Until the Treaty of the New Echota in 1836 and the subsequent “Indian Removal”, this was part of the Cherokee nation. The new settlers discovered copper in the early 1840’s and within a decade, the area was booming with mines and a thriving economy. One operation used a 2,400 ft vertical shaft, among the deepest in North America. However, there was no easy transport out of the mountains and 19th century methods of copper extraction destroyed the land.   Trees were clear cut to provide fuel for the open smelting of copper ore. This process released sulfur dioxide into the air which in turn killed any remaining vegetation.  Without vegetation, rain washed millions of cubic yards of toxic soil into the creeks and river, thus eliminating all aquatic life in the watershed. Natural evaporation cycles resulted in acid rain, destroying farms and wild life in the entire region, not just the mining district.

Some of the earliest responses to this destruction occurred in 1904 and 1906, when farmers and landowners in both Tennessee and Georgia filed lawsuits. One aspect of one of the settlements was to recapture the airborne sulfur dioxide and start manufacturing and marketing sulfuric acid.  In the 1930’s, the Tennessee Valley Authority began the first efforts to re-vegetate the area and in 1941, the Civilian Conservation Corps was brought in to increase the planting of trees and other plant life.  In 1995, a major environmental study was initiated, resulting in the Environmental Protection Agency plus other federal agencies, the state of Tennessee and a number of other private companies and organizations partnering to begin the process of undoing the harm and repairing the extensive damage to this area.

This was once a thriving community that supported people and families and businesses. This was in spite of the fact that children played in the runoff gullies, the only shade in the area, and satellite photos show the basin as totally denuded of vegetation. Technology and lessons learned have brought us to the point of reclaiming this piece of the earth.  To the credit of the community, they have preserved one small section of the copper basin in its most desolate condition, reminding future generations of the damage that had been done and could be repeated. This little spot brings a sign of hope – though the planners intended it to demonstrate the desolation of the land, natural growth is beginning to take hold and within ten years this area is likely to be fully greened.

This location was suggested by my artist friend, Marie Spaeder Haas, who lives in Ocoee Tennessee, right on the edge of the basin. In my piece “Copper Basin” I have tried to tell the story of the land. The shape of the piece itself, 48″ H and 17″ W, represents the deep and narrow mine shafts.  The lower section is dark brown, conveying the darkness of underground mining while the mid section represents the furrowed, sterile dirt on the surface.  The blue/green rectangles are actual pieces of copper salvaged during the restoration of the Louisville Cathedral’s bell tower.  Completed before the Civil War, this roof copper could actually have come from the Tennessee mines. The rectangle is repeated with stitching, pervading the piece as copper pervaded the communities surrounding the mines.  The top section of the piece is much brighter with chaotic inclusion of colors from the lower two sections. Flowers, grasses and other vegetation are gradually taking root, shown through the loose hanging threads, as are trees and other flora, such as the black locust represented by the printed leaves.

Copper Basin (Polk County, TN), detailDetail image