Elizabeth Dulemba

The Copperhill Story

“The copper bosses framed you Joe
They shot you Joe said I;
Takes more than guns to kill a man,
Said Joe I did not die.

Joe Hill ain’t dead he says to me,
Joe Hill ain’t never died;
Where working men are out on strike,
Joe Hill is at their side.”

— excerpt from “The Ballad of Joe Hill”
written by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson, 1925
And sung by Joan Baez at Woodstock in 1969.

     GOOD NEWS!! My novel, A BIRD ON WATER STREET will be released by Little Pickle Press in Spring 2014. Please sign up for e's news (CLICK HERE) to receive updates. (Click the cover for more information.)

Update! The new, illustrated (by me) edition of A BIRD ON WATER STREET is now available from Sourcebooks (2019).

     While A Bird on Water Street is fiction, Jack’s story weaves through a real time and place in American history. Copperhill, Tennessee (Coppertown) is located where Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina meet at the base of the Gateway to the Appalachian Mountains. (The town is called McCaysville on the Georgia side and Ducktown, Tennessee is just north of Copperhill.) The Georgia, Tennessee line really does cut through the parking lot of the local IGA grocery store, and I’ve stood with a foot in each state many times.
     Copper was discovered there in 1843, not long after the Cherokee Indians were forced to walk the “Trail of Tears.” Tin miners were brought in from Cornwall, England, as well as other countries, to apply their expertise to copper mining.
     Life was crazier than the Wild West in those days. The remote area was cut off from most civilization by rocky terrain and terrible roads. Before the railroad, wagons (pulled by teams of donkeys or oxen) typically took weeks to haul supplies and copper in and out of the mountains. Therefore, miners turned to the locally available fuel to keep the smelters running—wood.
     By the 1870s over 50 square miles of land had been stripped completely bare of trees. Toxic fumes expelled from the open ore roasting heaps created acid rain, which killed off the remaining vegetation. And although the smelters were enclosed in 1904 to trap and produce sulfuric acid, the area remained devoid of vegetation for over a hundred years.
     During my research I heard amazing stories of what it was like growing up in such an environment. For instance, the wind was too corrosive for tin roofs (everybody had asphalt shingles) and could eat up a pair of nylon stockings hanging on a clothesline in a matter of minutes. There were no bugs, and there were certainly no birds. But the mining was lucrative.
     The technology used in the Copper Basin mines was cutting edge for its time, although by today’s standards the methods would be deemed harsh. The long-term effects of their actions on the environment were considered acceptable back then—collateral damage. Sometimes that included loss of life.
      Unions didn’t come easily to the mining industry, but they did come. The unions helped improve health and safety standards for the workers, but cancer was still rampant. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put limits on the amount of toxins a person can legally be exposed to while on a job, but some exposure is legally okay. Add to that, the unions were constantly complaining that the regulations were not being followed—I was told about three men from the same mining crew who all died from pancreatic cancer in the same year. While the connection between mining and poor health was never technically proven, the coincidences seem obvious.
      Other than making arguments through the union, there wasn’t much the miners could do about it. The entire town’s economy relied upon the company, from the housing, to the grocery store, to the schools. Even so, mining was considered good work with high pay and benefits. A salary-paid miner led an enviable life, relatively speaking. While hourly-paid miners often felt stuck—especially during hard-times, layoffs, or strikes.
     While the closing of the company occurs quickly in A Bird on Water Street, in real life it happened much more slowly. In 1985 the Company announced copper mining would be phased out and thousands of men were laid off over the following years. The underground tunnels were allowed to flood with water to prevent collapses when mining operations halted completely in 1987, although sulfuric acid production continued well into the 1990s. Laid off workers ended up striking for a very long time, some as many as ten years.
     Eventually, the plant was sold to a company in Brazil. The mountains of calcine (slag) started being sold to far-away lands. Out-of-town contractors were brought in to start tearing the plant down just before my husband and I moved away in 2005. It seemed to be yet another slight against the local people who could have used the work.
     But not all the news was bad.
     In A Bird on Water Street, the land is still devoid of life in 1986, while in actuality, efforts to re-vegetate the 32,000-acre area began as early as the 1930s. Tree planting efforts continued through President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (the CCC) in the 1940s, and aerial seeding in the 1980s. However, the damage was so severe, change happened slowly. Even with all the environmental efforts, the region didn’t start making a comeback until the early 1990s.
     Copperhill experienced a small boon in 1996 when the Olympic white water competitions were held downstream on the Ocoee (Tohachee) River. It was a shining moment for the residents and changed the focus of the town, which now relies on tourist dollars to survive. Visitors enjoy the scenic railway, the vacation log cabins, and what is now a beautiful vista.
     By the time my husband and I moved to the region in 2001, most of the area had been reforested, although signs of the previous damage was still visible in some places, especially around the tailings ponds. Much of the local history is preserved at the Ducktown Basin Museum where visitors can see truly shocking photos of the once denuded landscape and schedule tours of the tailings ponds to observe reclamation efforts first hand. Ironically, much of the region is now wetlands. Reeds and grasses act as nature’s filtration process and now cover the once polluted area. Wildlife is slowly returning, even frogs.

Links to more amazing photos:
EPA - historic photos
EPA - more recent images
Glenn Springs Holding Company Photographs
   (the company in charge of the clean-up)

Photos used with permission from Stan Dulemba.

Other Things in A Bird on Water Street
The song Jack's mother sings when she doesn't realize she's doing it...
As The Sparrow Goes by Merle Kilgore, Anita Carter, and June Carter

Jack's Dad's favorite song - 16 Tons by Tennessee Ernie Ford

The Ballad of Joe Hill sung by Joan Baez at Woodstock in 1969.

     I wish I could tell you that what happened in Copperhill, Tennessee and the surrounding area was the only time mankind made such an enormous negative impact on our land, but it's not. Centralia, Pennsylvania is a good example - the down has suffered from an underground mine fire for more than 50 years, making it unsuitable and unsafe for human habitation. There is enough fuel for it to continue burning for another 1,000 years. Watch this shocking video:
     In another example, Photographer J Henry Fair has created a beautifully disturbing collection of "art" pieces from highly polluted sites in North America. They are in his new book, The Day After Tomorrow: Images of Our Earth in Crisis and they are worth a look - CLICK HERE for a preview.

     All Artwork © Elizabeth O. Dulemba -  Y'all play nice, Okay?