by Richard C. Finch, PhD
Historian Will Durant said it best: “Civilization exists by geological consent….subject to change without notice.” The Overton county town of Wilder exemplifies Durant’s aphorism: once a thriving coal-mining town, it has now completely disappeared. Yes, all human society is dependent on natural-- and essentially geologic—resources: water, minerals and stone, soil, and energy. We tend to forget this, perhaps because a Cookeville resident can buy fresh produce from California, a Crossville dweller can buy cheap clothing made in Indonesia, folks from Gainesboro can buy wine from Chile, a citizen of Red Boiling Springs can buy a car from Korea, and everyone everywhere can go to “big box” stores to buy cheap Chinese gadgets.
It is true we are no longer as dependent on our own, local natural resources as were our forebears. But even if we are currently using up vast quantities of someone else’s natural resources (and this may well prove to be an anomalous blip in the course of human history), we are still just as dependent as ever on having access to these basic natural resources: water for drinking, farming, transportation, hydroelectric power, and many industrial processes; soil for growing food and forests for timber; minerals for the manufacture of countless thousands of useful items; stone for construction; coal, oil, gas, uranium and other geologic resources for energy. And if you don’t consider wind and solar energy “geologic,” you still cannot capture and use their energy without devices made from minerals!
The Upper Cumberland region, blessed with abundant springs, streams and fertile (though generally small) valley bottoms developed as a rural agrarian area. Beyond the use of streams and soils, the uses of more obviously geologic resources were very limited through the 19th century. Stone was quarried for local construction purposes. Nitrate-rich earth was mined from caves in the Upper Cumberland to make saltpetre for black powder. Coal was mined in Fentress County as early as 1850, and oil wells drilled on Spring Creek in Putnam County as early as 1866. But the region’s industrial development and large-scale production of geologic resources was largely held back until the coming of the railroads, such as the Tennessee Central in 1890. The Upper Cumberland remained primarily agrarian into the early 20th century.
The 20th century saw industrial development and large-scale exploitation of geologic resources in the Upper Cumberland, primarily coal and oil, and to a lesser degree, natural gas. Tennessee coal production topped seven million tons annually in the ‘teens, and the state was still producing that amount up until 1978, with the Upper Cumberland contributing to the total. However, by 2005 statewide production had declined to 3.2 million tons, with merely 80,000 coming from the only three mines remaining active in the Upper Cumberland.
Although Tennessee, especially the Upper Cumberland region, was an early producer of petroleum, it has never been a major player nationally in oil and gas, with a total cumulative production for the state at just 20.6 million barrels. State production reached an all time high of one million barrels statewide in 1982, but by 2005 production had dropped to less than a third of this peak. Five Upper Cumberland counties accounted for 62% of the state’s total, but the general trend in production has been downward. The region’s production of natural gas is much smaller, with only two counties producing in 2005, making up only 2% of the state’s total.
Rock and mineral resources that have seen commercial production in the Upper Cumberland include dimension stone, crushed stone, sand, clay, and sphalerite. In Cumberland County colorful banded sandstone, known commercially as “Crab Orchard stone”, has achieved regional fame as a building stone. Crushed stone, primarily limestone for building and agricultural purposes, is mined in many localities and used locally as well as exported from our region. A number of sand quarries are in operation in Putnam and Cumberland counties. Clay has been used from time to time in local pottery manufacture. Sphalerite, the primary ore for zinc metal, was mined in several major mines in Smith County during the 1970s-80s. They were long abandoned due to low zinc prices worldwide. However, one mine has announced plans to reopen.
In sum, although the Upper Cumberland region continues to be a producer of geologic resources, the contributions of these natural resources to the regional economy today is generally declining and it seems doubtful that the traditional extractive resource industries will ever again form a major part of the region’s economic and employment picture.
What is the outlook for the future role of natural resources in the economy of the Upper Cumberland? Can the region’s economy take advantage of our natural resources in some manner other than by extractive industries? Yes, indeed we can. Our soils are still productive, our mountains still grow fine timber. And the geologic scenery of the Upper Cumberland region is spectacularly attractive…where it has not been marred by extractive industries or poorly planned development.
The Upper Cumberland abounds with recreational lakes, scenic and whitewater rivers, impressive canyons, waterfalls, natural bridges, caves, cliffs for rock climbers, and beautiful forested mountains and valleys. These scenic natural resources –mainly geologic features— draw many tourists to our area.
Statewide, the tourism industry is an 11.4 billion dollar industry; Tennessee is the 11th most visited state in the US. The Upper Cumberland region has state parks and wildlife preserves, resorts and bed-and-breakfast inns, and many historic and attractive small communities (and communities which could be attractive if an effort were made to make them so). But are we making full advantage of our scenic resources? Are we fully promoting the existing developed scenic attractions? Are we taking adequate steps to preserve and protect our scenic resources, both developed and undeveloped?
Unfortunately, not only are we not doing enough to promote the growth of tourism in our region, we are failing to protect potential tourist attractions. Fanchers Falls, one of the most spectacular sets of waterfalls—six or more falls—in our region, and wild when I first saw it, has been despoiled in recent years by the building of private homes right up to the edge of the cliffs overlooking the main 110-foot high falls. Just last year the land on one side of Cummins Falls, long a popular local attraction and swimming hole, was sold to a developer and subdivided. Both of these lovely areas could have been preserved as attractions to draw in tourism dollars to the benefit of our regional community, but now are lost to private developers. One of the most spectacular properties in all of Tennessee, the Head of Sequatchie is currently for sale by a land company that is advertising nationally. This particular area of great scenic, historic, and cultural value is truly a state park quality resource. Will it wind up contributing to the pleasure and economy of our region’s people, or merely the playground of a wealthy individual from out-of-state?
The same scenic resources that draw tourists to our region also make the Upper Cumberland highly attractive to retirees as permanent residents (e.g., Fairfield Glade, Tansi and Cumberland Cove communities in Cumberland and Putnam counties). In the newer Cumberland Lakes development 647 lots have been sold and some 40 homes built already, with an average value reported at $200,000 - $300,000, i.e., an investment of over $8,000,000 in the local economy.
Unfortunately, a portion of the Cumberland Lakes lots and homes are now threatened by the proposed opening of a new sand quarry adjacent to the retirement community. Here we have an example of incompatible land usage. The new quarry, representing a $3.5 million dollar investment that will generate 13 jobs, jeopardizes a larger actual investment in residential homes and a far larger potential investment in the economy of the Upper Cumberland.
Development, be it resource extraction, road building, housing subdivisions, or whatever, needs to be done in the context of what is good for our region as a whole. Proposed land usage needs to be compatible with existing usage. It makes no sense to open a quarry that will employ only a dozen people if that quarry is located where it will endanger the homes and investments of hundreds of people. The preservation of our scenic natural resources for the enjoyment of the people of our region, as well as for the region’s economy, needs to take a high priority in private and public planning; business and political leaders of the region have to work together to avoid such incompatible land uses.
The scenic natural resources of the Upper Cumberland can contribute much more than they already do to our regional economy, but only if we properly promote our existing facilities at developed attractions. If we take effective steps now to prevent the further loss of existing scenic attractions such as Fanchers and Cummins falls or the Head of Sequatchie, we can significantly grow our tourism industry in the future
Dr. Richard Finch is a retired Professor of Geology from Tennessee Technological University.