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

By Duncan Maysilles | Go to book overview

1
THE SETTING,
THE CHEROKEES,
AND THE FIRST ERA
OF DUCKTOWN
MINING, 1843–1878

In 1837, on the eve of the Cherokee Removal, there was only one way to approach Ducktown from the west: it was along a footpath that began in the Tennessee Valley and then climbed up and over Little Frog Mountain before descending into the Ducktown Basin. It is easy to imagine that a weary traveler might have stopped at some open place along the crest to take a breather and to scan the vista before moving on. The traveler would have seen a great expanse of Southern Appalachian hardwood forest, predominantly oak, chestnut, hickory, and tulip poplar, stretching across the floor of the Ducktown Basin and up the slopes of the surrounding mountains. The sweep of the woods was occasionally broken by the cabins and fields of the few Cherokees who dwelt there, a limited sign of human presence that served to emphasize the dominance of forest and mountains. The only smoke to be seen would have been the wispy columns rising from domestic hearths, and perhaps from a few blacksmith forges.1

Two decades later, Hardin Taliaferro, a Baptist preacher and nationally popular humorist, made his own journey from the Tennessee Valley to Ducktown. His journey was not on the old mountain footpath; rather, it was on the new Copper Road that had been blasted through the rocks of the Ocoee Gorge. He set forth his impressions through the voice of a fictional narrator in an exuberant 1860 piece in the Southern Literary Messenger, “Ducktown, by ‘Skitt’ Who Has Been ‘Thar.’” As Skitt told it, the road alongside the crags and waterfalls of the gorge was “romantic in the extreme,” though crowded with “Wagons! Wagons!! Wagons!!!” loaded with copper ingots for the westward journey to the railroad in the valley and with supplies and equipment for the eastward journey back to the mines. Like earlier travelers, he stopped at the crest of the mountain to take in the view: “Look down about the centre of this basin and behold those huge columns of smoke ascending towards heaven, spreading out at top like vast sheaves.” He noted that wherever copper ore was roasted and smelted came smoke “covering the heavens with a smoky pall.” Turning his gaze from the darkened skies to the valley floor, he

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