East Tenessee Iron Company scrip.


Tennessee has a long, rich, and varied mining history. Although the industry today accounts for only about three-tenths of a percent of the state’s gross products and two-tenths of a percent of nonagricultural jobs, Tennessee remains among the national leaders in some mining categories. Nonetheless, minerals and mining in the late twentieth century are scarcely mentioned in state promotional literature, a stark contrast with one hundred years ago, when abundant mineral resources were highly publicized among the state’s attractions for investors and immigrants. In fact, as early as the 1840s, an eminent geologist observed that because of the mineral resources and water-power potential of East Tennessee, “Nature had stamped it as country for manufacturing.” (1) Three decades earlier a noted planter and amateur scientist from Natchez noted iron deposits near the Natchez Trace in what is now Lewis County and predicted a bright industrial future for the area.

Tennessee, with more than seventy minerals and chemicals in scattered deposits across the state, has a larger number than any other southern state and ranks among the top states in the nation in terms of diversity. Limestone and dolomite, bituminous coal, lead, zinc, ball clay, sand and gravel, phosphate, fuller’s earth, petroleum, common clay and shale, barite and fluorite, marble, sandstone, copper, iron, gold, manganese, mica, tripoli, celestite, bauxite, granite, slate, and bentonite are among the products that have been mined or quarried. According to state geologists, there are a number of other potentially mineable minerals as well.

Historically, Tennessee’s most important mining products have been iron, bituminous coal, copper, lead, zinc, and phosphate. Iron ore was the most significant during early settlement years. Interest in the iron ore of the Western Highland Rim dates back to the 1790s and even earlier in the eastern mountains. Early miners attacked the outcrops of ore on or close to the surface. They stripped the ore by hand or used horses or mules to pull scrapers, sometimes gouging the land to a depth of thirty feet. Where the overburden was unweathered, they sometimes blasted and hauled it away. From these pits miners extracted hematite (red ore), brown ore (mountain or valley ore), or limonite.

The commercially valuable iron ores were located in the valleys and mountains of East Tennessee and in Middle Tennessee and were processed in manufactories that supplied mostly local and regional markets. By 1860 the state ranked third nationally in iron bloomery production, with Western Highland Rim properties in Stewart, Houston, Hickman, Montgomery, and Lewis Counties being particularly important. Early national census reports did not separate iron ore mining from iron production, but most early manufactories were associated with mines. By 1840 the U.S. Census reported iron production from eighty-two furnaces, bloomeries, forges, and rolling mills in East Tennessee; forty-seven in Middle Tennessee; and four in West Tennessee. In 1870, however, the census reported only six producers of iron ore in the state producing just over 34,600 tons of ore worth nearly $132,000. Tennessee had fallen to ninth among twenty-one states in iron ore production from its position of fourth in 1850. By 1910 the state reported forty-six producing iron mines. Pit mining along surface outcrops had almost disappeared, largely replaced by underground mining in the Euchee, Rockwood-Cardiff, and Chamberlain areas of central East Tennessee and the La Follette area of northeast Tennessee. At this point no deep shaft iron mining existed anywhere in the South.

In the early twentieth century iron mining became less and less important in Tennessee as the number of producing mines and the volume of ore production both dropped by roughly half from 1909 to 1919. By the latter year the Volunteer State contributed only half of a percent of national iron ore production. State geological studies of the period pointed to the abundant iron ore deposits and anticipated a prosperous future for the industry. A decade later, however, Tennessee had nearly disappeared from the ranks of iron-producing states, largely due to the relatively low quality and inaccessibility of its deposits. Since that time there have been only a few small and sporadic iron ore mining operations.

Iron’s close companion in early industry was coal. Tennesseans began to mine coal in small quantities during the 1840s. Blacksmiths who used the coal in their shops undertook much of this activity. Unlike iron, however, coal production in the state has remained significant ever since. Tennessee coal is of the bituminous, or soft, variety and is found in extensive deposits along a northeast-southwest belt a little east of the center of the state.

Coal mining became a significant Tennessee industry only after the end of the Civil War. As late as 1840, the U.S. Census reported only two coal producers in the state. By the eve of the war the number had risen to six, with nearly 400 employees, but only $423,662 in value of production. These figures changed only slightly during the next decade. Tennessee was tenth of nineteen states in bituminous production, with output concentrated in Anderson, Campbell, Grundy, Hamilton, Marion, and Roane Counties. By the 1850s large scale coal mining had begun, and in the 1860s J. D. B. De Bow, the famous promoter of southern industrialization, predicated that the extensive coal and iron resources of the Cumberlands would facilitate the rise of industry.

In the 1870s northern investors and businessmen bought up huge acreages in the mineral areas of Appalachia and by the early twentieth century controlled most of the best coal districts. During the 1880s there was a fivefold increase in coal production, and employment rose to more than 4,000 workers laboring above ground and 3,400 below ground. The value of coal produced was nearly $2,340,000. By this time Tennessee was thirteenth of twenty-nine coal-producing states and territories in value of production. Five large mines operated in the Jellico coal field, which stretched from Kentucky into the Tennessee counties of Campbell, Anderson, and Scott. Other important mining areas were in Claiborne, Morgan, Hamilton, and Marion Counties. Fentress, White, Grundy, Roane, Overton, Bledsoe, Sequatchie, Rhea, Putnam, and Overton Counties were also coal producers. The needs of industry stimulated production, as did the fact that railroad construction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century made the state’s coal deposits more accessible to both miners and markets. Consolidation and the opening of new and larger mines also contributed to the growing output.

By 1909 bituminous coal was the state’s leading mining industry. A decade later coal mining constituted more than half of the mining enterprises in the state, employed 66 percent of mining wage earners, and contributed over 60 percent of the value of mining production. The bituminous coal industry continued to rank first among the mineral industries in Tennessee as late as 1939, although by that time it accounted for only about 46 percent of the total value of mineral products.

At the turn of the century about 85 coal operators were in the state. During the next four decades, the number of mines fluctuated, from a high of 145 in 1919 to a low of 78 in 1929, and back up to 123 in 1939. Production settled at around five million tons, while the value of production fluctuated wildly because of changing prices. As late as 1909 far more coal was produced by hand pick than by machine. Because of new technology, the number of workers in the industry steadily declined, settling in at around 7,500 by 1940. For the next twenty years production remained at about the same level, roughly 6 million tons mined each year, although a surge in production occurred during World War II. Production shot up again in the 1970s, reaching a peak of 11.2 million tons in 1972. During the same period, employment dropped due to increasing mechanization and the closing of marginal mines. In the mid-1970s Tennessee ranked eleventh nationally in coal production.

As late as 1940 underground mines generated practically all (99.9 percent) of the coal produced in Tennessee. The state’s coal fields were not considered suitable for strip or auger mining because most were located under mountain peaks and contained relatively thin seams of the mineral. With the development of sophisticated machinery, however, strip and auger mining became increasingly important. By 1975 about 60 percent of the state’s coal was strip-mined. By the early 1990s the number of coal mining establishments in Tennessee had fallen by more than two-thirds, the number of workers by three-fourths, and the value of shipments by nearly two-thirds. The major markets for Tennessee coal in recent decades have been utilities in Tennessee and neighboring states. A relatively small amount of high grade metallurgical coal has been exported, mostly to Japan.

Lead and zinc production also has origins in Tennessee’s early history. Lead is found in East and Middle Tennessee, commonly in limestones and dolomites, and usually in association with zinc. The primary modern uses of lead are for storage batteries, gasoline additives, paint pigments, ammunition, and various alloys. The earliest deposits mined were at and near Bumpass Cove (Embreeville) in Washington and Unicoi Counties. They were worked as early as the Revolutionary Era, while deposits in the Powell River district in Claiborne and Union Counties were mined in the nineteenth century to make bullets. As late as the 1930s and 1940s the Kings Bend and Branch Hollow mines produced large quantities of zinc-lead concentrates, as did the New Prospect mine which operated almost continuously from 1883 to 1901. Other mining operations have been located in the White Pine district of Jefferson County. Some lead was mined before the Civil War in Davidson County, and by the Holt mine in Williamson County during World War I. In recent years no mines were worked exclusively for lead, but a small amount of the mineral was recovered as a by-product of copper mining in Polk County.

The first zinc mining in Tennessee occurred at Mossy Creek (Jefferson City) in 1854. Subsequently mining also occurred in Claiborne and Union Counties. Other mining areas were in the Bumpass Cove region of Washington and Unicoi Counties and in Bradley and Cannon Counties. The early mines were mostly open-pit operations recovering ores near the surface. Once the surface deposits were depleted, the industry was dominated by large underground operations such as those in Knox, Jefferson, Hawkins, Hancock, and Grainger Counties. Some mines are more than one thousand feet deep and are highly mechanized, with some ore hauled nearly two miles by electric trains before reaching the shaft to be hoisted to the surface.

While zinc production was relatively insignificant through the 1940s, by the 1960s Tennessee led the nation and was not surpassed until the 1990s by Alaska. Most of the modern production has come from a small number of large operators in the Mascot-Jefferson City district. Tennessee zinc ore is shipped to other states for smelting, and the concentrates are used to manufacture die castings and paint pigments. The metal also is used in galvanizing and brass manufacture and for minting pennies and metal sheets for battery cases. Zinc metal is also used for the production of pharmaceuticals.

Tennessee was the only major southern producer of copper, which is considered second only to iron as an important industrial metal. Copper mining in the Volunteer State began in the middle of the nineteenth century in the Ducktown-Copperhill district, commonly known as the Copper Basin, of Polk County. The mineral was first discovered in the area in the 1840s. The Hiwassee Mine opened in 1850 and became the first deep underground mine. By 1864 there were fourteen mines. The 1870 U.S. Census ranked Tennessee third nationally in value of copper production. The first smelter was established at the Eureka Mine in 1885, and it was soon followed by several others. By 1909 copper was the second leading mineral industry in Tennessee. Copper mining continued in the area until the Tennessee Chemical Company closed its mines in 1987 after 137 years of production (with only a 13-year gap).

In addition to the copper and other metals recovered from the Copper Basin’s ores, in the early twentieth century sulfuric acid was recovered from the smelter effluents. Before this, sulfur dioxide was released directly into the atmosphere, reacting with water vapor to form sulfuric acid, which fell as acid rain, denuding the area of the remaining trees that had not been harvested to provide fuel for the early ore roasting process. Eventually the area shifted from a primary emphasis upon copper production, with sulfuric acid as a by-product, to the reverse situation. The acid was used in storage batteries, as a bleaching agent, and in the fertilizer, chemical, petroleum refining, paint pigment, and rayon manufacturing industries. The once denuded area of the Copper Basin is now recovering, and in 1988 the State of Tennessee purchased the Burra Burra copper mine, which operated for over sixty-five years from the turn of the century. It is now preserved as a historic complex and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Tennessee was once a national leader in phosphate mining, and as late as 1990 ranked fifth in national production, even though the state produced only three percent of the nation’s marketable phosphate. Three principal types of phosphate (brown, blue, and white) have been mined in the state, although most of the modern production has been of the brown variety. Production has come primarily from the four Middle Tennessee counties of Williamson, Hickman, Maury, and Giles, but there has been some mining in Davidson and Sumner Counties. Brown phosphorous is exclusively mined by surface operators using drag lines and scrapers. Blue phosphorous is found in scattered deposits in Perry and Decatur Counties of Middle Tennessee and Johnson County in East Tennessee. The TVA mined it briefly in the 1930s, but it has been generally of little economic importance.

Through the 1930s, phosphate rock was primarily used to produce fertilizers, especially superphosphates, and in the manufacture of sodium phosphate. In recent years most of the phosphate mined in Tennessee has been smelted in electric furnaces for the production of elemental phosphorus, which can be used to make many organic and inorganic chemicals with a wide variety of industrial uses. Water softening and cleansing products, soaps and detergents, insecticides, and incendiary military products contain phosphorus, and the element is used in oil refining, food processing, and many other operations as well.

The 1900 U.S. Census reported forty phosphate mines in Tennessee with nearly 1,600 employees. A decade later the Volunteer State was second among the states in phosphate production. Over the next several decades about half that number of operations existed, although there were variations from time to time. Production and revenues increased significantly, and Tennessee remained the second leading phosphate mining state. As late as the 1960s phosphate rock mining contributed about ten percent of the total value of Tennessee mineral production. Beginning in the 1970s, the number of operations dropped significantly, and by the 1980s only two were left. In 1991 both operators announced closings, ending phosphate mining and refining in Tennessee.

Marble quarrying in Tennessee has a long and interesting history. The first quarrying activities date back to the late 1840s, when stone was produced for use in construction of the Washington Monument. Early the next decade, production began in the Knoxville area, with some of the stone used in construction of the state capitol building. The reputation of Tennessee marble spread, and it became famous for its high quality and the variety of its coloration. It was widely used across the United States and in other countries, especially in the interiors of public buildings. Among the famous structures that feature extensive use of Tennessee marble are the J.P. Morgan Library in New York City, and the capitol building, National Gallery of Art, and Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. By the 1920s there were eleven active marble companies and twenty-eight quarries. After a prolonged slump during the Great Depression and World War II the industry momentarily recovered. By the late 1950s Tennessee led the United States in rough-dimension marble output, accounting for 42 percent of the nation’s total value of production. As late as 1963, Tennessee ranked second in national production. After that time production and the number of operations dropped drastically, but a significant recovery, spurred by the use of Tennessee marble in some major construction projects, including the renovation of New York City’s Grand Central Station, occurred in the late 1980s. Though new markets have opened up with the production of “marble tiles,” combining crushed marble with a binding polymer and coloring agent, the industry still faces tough competition from producers in Italy and Spain.

A little-known, but significant, Tennessee mining industry is the production of ball clay, a fine-grained material with extreme plasticity and high bonding strength. The name comes from England, where the substance was mined by cutting and rolling it into ball-like chunks. Ball clay is primarily used in the manufacture of dinnerware, sanitary ware pottery, wall and floor tiles, electrical porcelain, and refractories. Ball clay minerals are also used in rubber, fiberglass, ceiling tile, wall board, and agricultural chemicals.

Pioneer Tennesseans used ball clay to make crocks, jugs, and other domestic items. It was not until World War I interrupted clay imports from Europe, however, that the high quality of Tennessee clay was widely recognized. By the late 1980s ball clay ranked fifth in total annual revenue among minerals mined in Tennessee, and it was shipped to major markets in Mexico, Canada, the Philippines, and other parts of the world. The clay is obtained by open-pit mining, with the overburden removed by bulldozers and draglines. The clay is removed by backhoes or front-end loaders. Both the mining and processing are done by a small number of companies. Today Tennessee supplies more ball clay than any other state; in recent years the counties of Henry, Weakley, and Carroll have provided about 70 percent of total national production;

Another commercially important Tennessee clay is fuller’s earth, which is also known as bloating or bleaching clay and soapstone. Its most important use is in pet waste absorbents, but it is also found in oil and grease absorbents, pesticide extenders, mineral and vegetable oil decolorizers, drilling mud, lightweight ceramic ware, and bricks used in refractories. Fuller’s earth is found in Henry, Carroll, Madison, Henderson, Chester, and Hardeman Counties. Mining and processing began in Henry County in the 1930s, and by the 1980s Tennessee fuller’s earth ranked fifth in value nationally and eighth among all mineral commodities produced in the state. Fuller’s earth is surface mined and then trucked to plants for processing.

Common clay and shale have been mined for many years in Tennessee. They provide raw material for bricks, cement, clay pipe, and structural clay products. In the late 1980s common clay and shale from the state’s open-pit mines ranked tenth among Tennessee’s mineral industries. Tennessee also produced small quantities of bentonite, a fine-grained, sticky clay used in oil refining, drilling mud, and as a component of foundry sand and a desiccant. While some bentonite is found in all three major regions of the state, the only significant commercial production has been in West Tennessee.

Other minerals still mined or quarried as late as the 1980s include sand and gravel, barite and fluorite, lightweight aggregate, and dimension sandstone. Minerals formerly produced commercially, but not mined or quarried in the late twentieth century, are dimension limestone, gold, silver, manganese, mica, tripoli, celestite, bauxite, granite, and slate.

While Tennessee has never been a major producer of oil and gas, petroleum has been an important, if small, contributor to the state’s economy. Oil production in Tennessee actually predates the famous Drake well in Pennsylvania. Pioneers drilling for brines to make salt discovered and drew petroleum from relatively shallow wells. The first commercial oil well in the state was drilled in Overton County in 1866. In the late 1980s crude oil and natural gas production combined ranked ninth in total value among the state’s mineral commodities. The major producers of crude oil were in Morgan, Scott, Claiborne, and Fentress Counties, while Morgan, Scott, and Fentress Counties contributed most of the natural gas. Most of Tennessee’s natural gas is used for fuel, while the crude oil products include gasoline and diesel fuel (which make up about 80 percent of the total), jet and aviation fuel, kerosene, residual fuels, lubricants, and liquefied petroleum gases. Petroleum is used in the textile, plastics, and petrochemical industries.

Tennessee’s rank among mining states has fallen rather steadily since the late nineteenth century, although mining and quarrying have remained significant industries. At the turn of the century, Tennessee had 241 mines and quarries, turning out products valued at $9,533,782. This ranked eighteenth among the states. A decade later there were 365 mines, wells, and quarries, and the value of production had risen to $12,692,547, which represented one percent of the national total. The leading industry was coal mining, followed in order by copper and phosphate. By 1919 coal continued to be the leading mineral product of the Volunteer State, but phosphate rock had risen to second in both the state and the nation, followed by lead-bearing zinc ores, marble, iron, and copper. The state ranked twenty-third nationally in value of production, and its total of $23,292,114 represented seven-tenths of one percent of the national figure. A decade later the number of mines and quarries in Tennessee had fallen to 189, but their total value of production had risen slightly, and it was twenty-second among the states. By 1940 Tennessee had fallen to twenty-seventh among the states in value of production. Coal production was still the state’s leading mining industry and phosphate rock mining was second. The state led the nation in the value of products from its rough dimension marble industry, and was second nationally in the value of phosphate rock production. The state value of production from 240 mines and quarries was $21,951,517.

Since the 1950s Tennessee has continued to rank near the middle of the states in mineral production. In 1958 the state’s 677 mines, quarries, and wells contributed just over $61 million in value added in mining, which represented one-half of 1 percent of the national total, and ranked the state twenty-sixth nationally. By 1963 Tennessee’s value added in mining had risen to over $90 million, produced by 528 mining operations. The number of operations dropped to 352 by 1967, but the value added in mining increased to $116.2 million. The value added in mining had risen to $152.1 million by 1972, while the number of mining operations remained about the same. The number of mining operations increased to 481 by 1977, while the value added in mining, affected by inflation in the economy, jumped dramatically to $378.1 million.

In 1982 the state had 515 mineral establishments and the value added in mining totaled $497.7 million. By 1987 these figures had dropped to 341 and $458.4 million, respectively, and mining employment had decreased by 28 percent. By 1992 Tennessee had 291 establishments, which contributed $348.3 million in value added by mining, ranking the state thirty-first in the nation. It still led the nation in the production of ball clay, gem stones (mostly freshwater cultured pearls), and zinc while remaining among the leaders in barite, crushed stone, fuller’s earth, and phosphate production. Tennessee’s mineral industries are obviously less important in the state’s economic mix today than in the past, though they continue to play a significant role in the state’s economy.

Suggested Reading

Ronald D. Eller, Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers: Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930 (1982); Robert J. Floyd, Tennessee Rock and Mineral Resources (Bulletin 66, State of Tennessee, Department of Conservation, Division of Geology, 1965, reprinted 1990); Tennessee Minerals Annual (Bulletin 83, State of Tennessee, Department of Environment and Conservation, Division of Geology, 1992)

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  • Article Title Mining
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date May 27, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018