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

By McSwain, James B. | The Journal of Southern History, August 2012 | Go to article overview

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


McSwain, James B., The Journal of Southern History


Ducktown Smoke: The Fight over One of the South's Greatest Environmental Disasters. By Duncan Maysilles. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, c. 2011. Pp. x, 333. $39.95, ISBN 978-0-8078-3459-6.)

In this environmental and legal history of the Ducktown Basin since the mid-nineteenth century, Duncan Maysilles analyzes a series of common-law nuisance suits between 1896 and 1903 over the damage caused by sulfur smoke from smelters on the Tennessee-Georgia border. The turning point in litigation came in 1904 when Georgia attorney general John C. Hart asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an original jurisdiction suit. Hart claimed that the "invasion" of sulfur smoke and toxic fumes from copper-ore roasting in Tennessee had destroyed Georgia property (p. 111). Only an injunction could halt this threat to Georgia's "sovereign integrity" (p. 112).

In a quick settlement, Ducktown Sulphur, Copper & Iron Company (DSC&I), having already shifted to the new technology of pyritic (furnace) smelting, stipulated it would not resume open heap roasting. Tennessee Copper Company (TCC) agreed that when the current roasting ended, it would use furnace smelting as well. In return, Georgia officials promised not to ask for a restraining order. The Supreme Court approved the agreement but left open the possibility of renewing the case if proposed remedies proved ineffectual.

Pyritic smelting increased sulfur smoke levels, so Hart filed a second injunction suit with the Supreme Court in 1905. The Court ruled unanimously in Georgia v. Tennessee Copper Company (1907) in favor of Georgia but only reluctantly granted injunctive relief, noting that in defense of its rights Georgia might do "more harm than good to ... citizens" who stood to lose their jobs if smelting stopped (p. 168).

In 1910 TCC accepted a settlement in which Georgia agreed to suspend injunction actions until a Supreme Court hearing in October 1913. …

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