Down in the extreme southeast corner of East Tennessee, with the North Carolina and Georgia state lines within a stone’s throw, there’s an area called the Copper Basin. There’s actually a town called that, too, but the whole area was so known from the late 1840s to 1987 because there were highly productive and profitable copper mines in the area. The Basin, until after the mines closed, was also an eerie landscape, almost lunar in its barrenness; the smelting process for the copper produced sulfuric acid, which in turn killed all vegetation, creating a roughly fifty-square-mile area that looked like this:
Now there were, back in the day, five major mines in the Basin. The one from which our story comes was in Ducktown, Tennessee. The mine was called the Isabella, and it was the site of several terrible accidents back in the 1890s. Once the mine filled up with water, and a number of miners drowned; later on, a pump that pulled fresh air into the mine failed, and several men died, way down in the bowels of the mine.
The last man who got out of the Isabella alive the day the pump failed was named Jack McCaulla. Jack had worked in the mines for most of his adult life, and had the reputation of being the bravest man in the Isabella. Nothing, from rock falls to pump failures to water suddenly filling up the mine had ever fazed Jack McCaulla. He had helped guide other miners to safety; he had helped retrieve the bodies of the dead; and, as on this day, he had often calmly waited his turn to get out of danger. He had deliberately stood back while a number of panicked survivors climbed up the ladder that provided the only access–other than a packed and slow wooden elevator–out of the mine, and when asked why he had waited so patiently, had only remarked that, well, there was only one ladder, and somebody had to be last.
A few months after the failure of the fresh-air pump and the asphyxiation of a number of miners, Jack McCaulla was working at the four-hundred-foot level. He peeled off from the other miners into a new tunnel, blasted only the day before, and began filling a cart with chunks of copper-bearing ore, to be taken topside to begin the smelting process.
He’d been working about an hour when he noticed that the pipe that carried the air pulled into the mine by the new pump had begun to make a strange hissing noise. He listened for awhile, wondering if the pipe had sprung a leak and the hissing was merely air escaping; but he worked steadily—until, all at once, the sound seemed less like air than running water.
Still, Jack didn’t leave his task; he reasoned that surely, if water was coming into the mine, he’d hear the hubbub of miners warning each other and running to get out of its way.
Then, under the sound of running water, he heard something that did, finally, frighten the bravest man in the mine.
Crying out in despair, calling the names of loved ones, some of them in terrible pain, others weeping and moaning.
Jack knew, in less than a heartbeat, who those voices belonged to. He may even have recognized some of them. He knew that they were the voices of every man who had ever died in the Isabella.
Jack McCaulla, pale as a ghost himself, walked out of the mine without finishing his shift that day. The surface boss paid him off, unquestioningly, after Jack told him about the voices. He knew, from the look on Jack McCaulla’s face, that the bravest man in the mine had finally been scared out of it.
And Jack McCaulla never worked in the mines again.
The mines all closed down by 1987, after the owners filed for bankruptcy, and slowly, with time and replanting, trees, grass and other plants have begun to cover the Basin again. (We were excited, back in my high school and college years, to hear that the football field at the high school in the Copper Hill area–since, I think, consolidated with others in Polk County–had begun to grow actual grass; it had been Astroturf before.)
As for the voices Jack McCaulla heard, God willing, with the closing of the mines, they are silent at last.
The story of the ghostly voices of the Isabella Mine is a fairly well-known one in the Basin. This account is based on one from Nancy Roberts’s 1978 book GHOSTS OF THE SOUTHERN MOUNTAINS AND APPALACHIA.