COPPERHILL, Tenn. -- Copperhill's foundations rest on copper slag, but today townfolk are looking for tourist gold.
A generation ago, the towns of the Copper Basin were famous for the red desert that surrounded them for 50 square miles. The red hills, with no green in sight, were the result of clear-cutting the timber for fuel to burn in open-air smelters and the resulting acid rain. The desert hills were featured in national magazines, including National Geographic, and photographed from space by NASA.
That desert past, from the discovery of copper in the 1850s until the closing of the mines in the 1980s, is recalled in photos, mining equipment and documents at the Ducktown Basin Museum, just across U.S. Highway 64 from Copperhill.
"My daddy never owned a lawnmower until I was older," recalled Joyce Allen.
She has worked at the museum for 18 years.
"We get visitors sometimes who say stuff like, 'My parents brought me here to see the desert when I was little,'" she said.
Inside the small building are photos of bleak homes built on stilts above the red, gritty slag. The museum, which often hosts student groups, including college geology classes, also displays photos of the reclamation efforts dating to the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Standing on a rusting observation deck across the museum parking lot, Allen pointed to the last peaks of red being hidden by green plants. Soon that last vestige of the mining desert, which surrounds a lake of deep, blue water that once opened to a mine, will be gone.
Tucked into the extreme southeast corner of the state about 70 miles from Chattanooga, the Copper Basin towns of Ducktown and Copperhill, Tenn., and McCaysville, Ga., have been reinventing themselves for a decade.
Part of that was a 10-year, $100 million project to reclaim land scarred and water poisoned from copper mining and acid production.
In what all sides called a unique partnership between industry and the EPA, reclamation company Glenn Springs Holdings Inc. built water treatment plants and wetlands, removed some polluting products and capped others, and planted enough vegetation and trees to have turned some formerly polluted areas into wildlife havens and fish habitats.
Today, the signs of new life here are all around, although the 2010 U.S. census recorded 354 Copperhill city residents, down from 511 in 2000.
Copperhill's vacant storefronts are filling up, cabin rentals and construction are on the rise and the number of excursion trains to the area has increased.
"Even last year, it seemed we had more vacancies than actual businesses," said Jan Beck, president of the Copper Basin Chamber of Commerce. "I can tell the economy is beginning to pick up. There's more businesses than vacancies this year."
Tammi and Rip Mann are part of the transformation from a mining past to the present's growing list of antique and craft shops and downtown restaurants. They supplement Copperhill's natural features -- the mountains, trails and the Ocoee River -- that always have drawn outdoor enthusiasts.
Rip Mann is a member of the TriCities Business Association that includes Copperhill and McCaysville and Blue Ridge on the Georgia side.
Mann uses downtown Chattanooga as an example of what can happen.
"I know what it [Chattanooga] was like 30 years ago and what it's like now. It became a magnificent city," Mann said while greeting customers and visitors at Christmas Is Here!, a collectibles shop that offers local and international handmade crafts year-round.
One of those customers was Susan Killian, of Chattanooga. She came to Blue Ridge to shop and drove over to Copperhill, too.
"It looks so much better now. The shops are fun to explore. There are fine little restaurants," she said.
Until recently, though, restaurants had been a problem, Mann said.
"When the train people are here, they have to serve about 500 people in a matter of two hours," he said, referring to the excursion trains that bring the tourists.
But now, the venerable New York Restaurant, downtown for 90 years, has reopened. There's a Mexican restaurant across the street from Mann's shop and hamburger restaurants, too. A Cuban restaurant will open on the same block soon.
"We are getting more variety now. And that's good for local people as well as our visitors," said Beck.
Two excursion trains bring tourists to the Copperhill and McCaysville area. The Blue Ridge Scenic Railway runs from Blue Ridge to McCaysville/Copperhill. The Hiwassee River Rail Adventure runs from Etowah, Tenn., to Copperhill.
Rail excursions have been so popular the past two or three years, the number of trips from Etowah has increased this year, said Linda Caldwell, executive director of the Tennessee Overhill Association. The association does tourism promotion for Polk, Monroe and McMinn counties.
"One thing we have been blessed with in the Overhill country are wonderful mountain towns that all have some personality," Caldwell said.
"We are seeing more women on mountain bikes, in kayaks and group fishing trips," Caldwell said. "They may not mind camping, but they also want cabins with some amenities. And we have seen a growth in the number of cabins. Twenty years ago we had cabins but nothing like what we are seeing now."
She couldn't say how many cabins are being built, but "they wouldn't keep building them if they weren't making money."
"We have had wonderful outdoor recreation resources for years," Caldwell said. "We started out with a good infrastructure for mountain biking, hiking trails, fishing and so on. But we needed more infrastructure in terms of businesses and restaurants. And that is catching up."
Another trend, booking vacations online, is adding to the tourism growth in mountain counties, Caldwell said. As a result, the Tennessee Overhill Association is doing more now to get on the Internet, she said.
Meanwhile, along with the cabin vacations, whitewater rafting and train excursions, the mining past is still part of the Copper Basin economy.
Trucks loaded with calcine material, a byproduct of the smelting process, make hundreds of trips each day to Chattanooga and its river barges.
Ken Rush, at the Ducktown Basin Museum, explained that calcine is not the red slag motorists see when coming into Copperhill from U.S. 64.
Calcine was left over when the area's high-grade copper ore was smelted to remove the sulfur. That was used to manufacture sulfuric acid, the other historic product of the mines.
Calcine was marketed to steel mills in Birmingham, Ala., until the 1970s, when the mill owners found a source of higher-grade material.
But sulfuric acid production continued for decades, and the calcine was stockpiled in a large area away from the roads.
Now Intertrade Holdings Inc. owns the calcine, which it sells to brokers for mostly international markets, Rush said.
The trucks hauling the material have just made the summer shift to night trips, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., to avoid conflict with summer whitewater traffic along the Ocoee River Gorge.
Slag, a different material than calcine, is an inert waste product of small, rust-colored rocks, Rush said. Almost from mining's beginning here, it has been used on driveways, roadways, railways and as fill underlying much of downtown Copperhill.
The calcine "mining" going on now is out of sight of the roadways. But those big red mounds at the beginning of town, where remnants of the mine company and an electric power substation sit, aren't going anywhere.
They remain a sharp contrast between what was once the landscape and a lush 50 square miles of green now.
Contact staff writer Randall Higgins at email@example.com or 423-314-1029.