Ducktown Smoke: The Fight over One of the South's Greatest Environmental Disasters

By Duncan Maysilles | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION THE VIEW FROM THE MOUNTAIN

He could see the smoke coming, and he knew what it was. B. H. Sebolt, a septuagenarian farmer with a little spread in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Fannin County, Georgia, recognized its appearance and odor: a dark, bluish smoke with the rotten-egg stench of sulfur. He could also identify its source. From Mr. Trammel’s apple orchard on the top of the mountain, he looked north and saw the smoke gushing from the copper smelters ten miles away, across the Tennessee border. He testified about the smoke in 1914: “It come right through this county and scattered every way…. When we have had a shower of rain and the smoke comes in, it settles down heavy and look like a fog, and when that dries off you can see the damage.” He explained that the smoke caused the leaves on his peas, beans, potatoes, cabbage, and corn to draw up and turn brown as if “you take fire and hold it close” to them.i

The smoke damage to Sebolt’s garden was but a hint of the far greater havoc inflicted in areas closer to the smelters of the Ducktown Sulphur, Copper & Iron Company (DSC I) and the Tennessee Copper Company (TCC). Seen from Trammel’s apple orchard or from any of the surrounding peaks, the heart of the Ducktown Basin was a fifty-square-mile expanse of heavily eroded badlands fringed on the margins by patches of grass and dying forests. Sebolt could see miles of reddish-orange gullies, carved by water into dendritic patterns, where farms and forests stood not long before.2

Such a view would not be out of place in the arid regions of the American West, but set amid the lush hardwood forests of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, it was a bizarre and shocking vista that excited the comments of visitors. In 1902 a mining engineer described it as a “desolate barren waste.” Stuart Chase, author of Rich Land, Poor Land, a 1936 manifesto for soil conservation written during the Dust Bowl years of the Great Depression, called Ducktown “badlands without the balance and natural composure of a desert.” He made it exhibit A in his case against human abuse of the land by asking, “What happens when a continent is one great Ducktown?” A scientist for the Tennessee Valley Authority wrote of it in 1938 as “the most severe denudation east of the Black Hills [of South Dakota].” In 1967 Grady Clay, a landscape architect, said it was “variously described as: a hellhole, a blister, a desecration, something out of Dante’s Inferno, the Tennessee Badlands, the ugliest place in the South,” and, in less hostile terms, “a ravaged wonder.” 3

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