The origins of the Tennessee copper mining industry can be traced back to 1843, when a gold prospector discovered copper near Potato Creek in the southeast corner of Polk County. Copper mining began in 1847, and the Hiwassee mine became the first deep mine for copper when it opened in August 1850. By the end of 1853 eleven mines were operating in Tennessee. Originally no smelting was done at the mines, and ore was hauled by wagon to Dalton, Georgia, and shipped by rail to northern cities. Successful operations demanded access to railroads, however, and construction of the Copper Road from Ducktown to Cleveland, Tennessee, through the Ocoee River gorge, began in 1851 and was completed two years later.
With the increase in mining came a need for refinement of the ore. In 1854 the first smelter was built at the Hiwassee mine; others soon followed. Nevertheless, the expense of equipping mining operations slowed development of the region, and by 1858, only five mines operated regularly in Ducktown. Consolidation of smaller companies provided the only mechanism for continuing mining operations. The Burra Burra Copper Company was the result of such a consolidation.
Organized in 1860, the Burra Burra Copper Company consolidated the Hiwassee mine, the Cocheco mine, and the inactive Toccoee Mining Company. The capital stock was fixed at $1.5 million, and the company operated under the direction of William H. Peet, president; George O. Sweet, secretary; William H. Peet, John Thomas, E. MacPherson (who later served as president), and Lyman W. Gilbert, directors. The company owned five thousand acres of land, the greater part of which was at Turtletown.
At its first meeting the board of directors named Julius E. Raht, a young German engineer from Ducktown, as superintendent of the Polk County operations. Burra Burra prepared for mining and smelting on a grand scale. Indeed, since the directors believed the company's prospects to be so bright, they chose the name Burra Burra after a famous Australian mine of the period.
Unfortunately, the Civil War proved disastrous for the mining operation, whose entire output sold to northern refineries. Between 1861 and 1863 the mines operated under Confederate supervision, but when the railroad at Cleveland fell to the Union army, the mines closed until the war ended.
In 1866 activities at Burra Burra resumed under the direction of Julius Raht. For several years the ore continued to average from ten to 15 percent copper. The company hoped to realize enough profit from the rich black ore located near the surface to cover expenses until deep workings tapped the more abundant yellow ore. In June 1869, with the supply of black copper nearing exhaustion, the company made earnest, but unsuccessful, attempts to reach the yellow sulphurets.
In addition to the mines, Burra Burra, like Ducktown's other two companies, operated smelting works that had been completed during the war. The smelting operation consisted of nine furnaces, a forty-horsepower steam engine, and a four-horsepower water wheel. Burra Burra employed some 160 men and boys, with an average annual payroll of sixty thousand dollars. The company produced an average of one million pounds of copper annually.
The company succumbed to a series of financial problems in the 1870s. The debt load became heavier with each passing year; when mortgage bonds matured in 1866, they were renewed for another five years. The company never found the necessary financial backing to restore rail service from Ducktown to Cleveland. Burra Burra desperately needed a rise in the price of copper to survive, but an increase in domestic copper prices came too late for the company. Mortgage holders instituted foreclosure proceedings in 1875, and two years later, the company's properties sold for twenty-five thousand dollars.
The impact of Burra Burra Copper Company–as well as other copper operations–continued long after its financial collapse. By 1900 mining, harvesting of forests to fuel the smelters, and emissions from the smelters had combined to denude approximately thirty-two thousand acres, creating a virtual moonscape. Today, the process has been partially reversed through ongoing soil reclamation efforts, though the effects are still visible. The Burra Burra Copper Mine is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.