by Richard Scott
Welcome to the Copper Basin. As you wander the streets of Copperhill and McCaysville, you’re following in the footsteps of miners and farmers, merchants and adventurers, Cherokee Indians with log canoes and Olympic champions with fiberglass kayaks perched on the tops of their Jeep Cherokees. If, looking around you, you can’t quite tell where Copperhill ends and McCaysville begins, don’t feel bad. A lot of the locals don’t really know either. Even the painted line that begins in the IGA parking lot isn’t necessarily definitive. And, of course, without suspending the laws of physics, we could hardly paint a bright blue line all the way across the river.
On the Georgia side of the old steel bridge, the river is called the Toccoa. On the Tennessee side, it’s called the Ocoee. Both names are a legacy from the Cherokee bands that made their homes in the Copper Basin long before the first European settlers came. In 1835 a Cherokee village of more than a hundred people lay at the mouth of Fightingtown Creek, almost directly across the river from the red-and-white smokestack at the far end of Copperhill.
The Native Americans used this area’s copper for many years before it was “rediscovered” by European settlers in 1843. The official versions will tell you that, when the first copper was discovered in the Basin, it was found near a stream called “Potato Creek.” Well, maybe. But nobody around here, to our knowledge, has ever called it anything but Tater Creek, or ever will.
The creek, and the copper mines that gave Copperhill its name, were actually several miles away, near the towns of Ducktown and Isabella. The mines produced copper, iron, sulfer, zinc and small amounts of gold and silver. Before 1900 the Copper Basin was the largest mining district in the Southeast. At it’s height copper mining employed more than 3,300 people and had an annual payroll in excess of 35 million dollars.
The early mining and smelting operation at Ducktown devastated the surrounding environment. Trees were cut down and used for fuel to roast the sulfur rich ore. High concentrations of sulfur dioxide released from the open air smelters harmed vegetation over a large area. Without the tree cover to hold the soil in place, the high rainfall in the area removed soil and tons of sediment eroded into the streams.
Cooperative reclamation efforts started in the 1930’s and continue today. Thousands of acres of land have been treated and revegetated, and the landscape has been slowly transformed back to forests from the barren “moonscape” that visitors can see preserved at the Ducktown Basin Museum on the site of the old Burra Burra mine.
But for a long time the bare clay hills around Copperhill were as red as the copper itself. In fact, when NASA took the first satellite photos from space, the only identifiable place in the southeastern U.S. was right here, a round red spot, covering hundreds of acres, completely encircled by forests. The red hills are mostly gone now, but especially around sunset, with the hazy blue ridges of the Appalachians spreading out behind them, they had a certain magic of their own. No one who grew up here has ever quite forgotten them.
The last of the mines closed in 1987, faced with the reality that even the sulfuric acid plant still in operation at Copperhill could import copper more cheaply than we could mine it in our own back yard. But for nearly a century and a half, as it provided jobs for thousands of people, the ore in the veins beneath these hills was also the lifeblood that flowed through the veins of every community in the Basin.
In recent years, the Copper Basin has realized it’s wealth of other natural resources and turned to tourism as the basis for it’s economy. With three major rivers and acres of National Forests, the area is a nature lover’s paradise. The Hiwassee River is prized for its trout fishing. The Toccoa is wide and peaceful and winds its tree lined way through green hills and gentle farmlands making it perfect for a lazy afternoon of tubing. The Ocoee, just a few miles beyond the bridge, becomes a wild river so challenging that it was chosen as the site of the whitewater events in the 1996 Olympics.
Whitewater rafting has become a major industry here, so don’t be surprised if some of the people you meet on the street look just a little damp. The timber companies that made use of the river to float their logs to the copper smelters a century ago, would be amazed to see all the rafters & kayakers floating past today.
Speaking of floating, if you had decided to visit us on February 16, 1990, you wouldn’t have been able to walk on the streets of Copperhill and McCaysville at all. They were under almost eight feet of water. Every business in the main shopping district, and every nearby home on level ground, had suffered serious damage by the time the river, swollen by several days of abnormally heavy rain, finally receded back within its banks. If you look carefully, you can still see faint high-water marks on some of the businesses that line Ocoee Street.
In 1998 the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway began sight-seeing excursions between Blue Ridge, Georgia and Copperhill, TN. The Tennessee Valley Railroad also offers train excursions from Etowah along the old CSX tracks, that includes a ride through the famous loop around Bald Mountain. The picture to the left shows a train on the old CSX tracks near Ducktown in the 60’s. Major portions of this track were renovated to enable the TVA to bring in parts and supplies for work on the Ocoee River Dams.
The Copper Basin is continuing to grow with new businesses & activities each year. In addition to river rafting, several outfitters are now offering mountain biking and zip lining excursions.There are new shops and restaurants, even a cupcake shop. You may have seen the staff from “The Sweet Shoppe” competing on the Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars.” Everyday it seems, someone new decides to make the Copper Basin their home!
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning a bit of the history of the Copper Basin and that you’ll come for a visit soon.
The Maloof Building
The Maloof Building stands at the corner of Grande Avenue & Ocoee Street in Copperhill. Once the home of Jones Drug & Confectionary Company’s Ice Cream & Candy Parlor, this building has seen a number of occupants thru the years. The upper floors have been apartments and were once Maloof’s Bed & Breakfast, now closed. Former residents tell us the upper floor windows were the best possible viewing spot for the Kiwanis Club Christmas Parade. The lower floor is currently home to The Courtyard Studios, a group of local arts & craftspeople who work and sell their creations from this site. An afternon visitor may find a seminar on woodworking in progress, with eager students learning to hand carve local hardwoods into beautiful useful & decorative bowls & platters.
The Abernathy Building
The Abernathy family building housed a furniture store on the first and second floor in 1925 where they also sold hardware, dynamite, caps and fuses. On the top floor Luther Abernathy had a funeral parlor. Luther was one of the first “embalmer graduates” from the Cincinnati College of Embalming. Luther’s wife, Elizabeth, from Barnsville, GA, who was a college graduate, taught school in McCaysville GA. Luther’s first wife died during the 1918 flu epidemic. So many people died in that epidemic that it was difficult to dig enough graves. Approximately one fourth of the population died because of the flu that year. During the time of the Abernathy Furniture store, there were fifty two businesses in the area. Today the TriCities Business Association has almost 100 members. This building is now the home of El Rio’s Mexican Restaurant and The Copperhill Consignment & Collectible Company.