Advanced 6: Mining

Coke ovens in Tracy City are a reminder of how much coal mining there used to be in Tennessee

When you talk about Tennessee products, you need to include things mined.

Six examples of this are coal, limestone, marble, zinc, copper and clay.


Coal miners in Dunlap in the 1920s
PHOTO: Dunlap Coke Ovens Museum

Coal is black and rocky; it looks sort of like charcoal but is much heavier. When pure coal catches on fire it burns for a long time and gives off a lot of heat. Many years ago, most homes were heated with a coal furnace. In fact, if you live in an old house, you many find remnants of a pile of coal in your cellar.

Today most homes in Tennessee are heated by electricity or natural gas. The Tennessee Valley Authority, however, still uses a lot of coal at some of its plants. In fact, TVA is the largest user of coal in the United States.

According to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which regulates the mining industry, about 650 people still make their living as coal miners. They work in tunnel and surface mines located in four counties — Anderson, Campbell, Claiborne and Scott.

The limestone processing operation at Crab Orchard


If you stick a shovel in the ground in Tennessee you will run into lightly-colored rocks within a foot or so. Most of this rock is limestone, and among other things it is used to build buildings and pave roads.

Today limestone is still heavily mined at about a dozen large mines (or quarries, as they are called) located in rural areas. If you have ridden in a car along Interstate 40, between Nashville and Knoxville, you’ve seen the largest limestone mine in the state — the Crab Orchard mine in Cumberland County.

Some of the old (Tennessee) limestone columns at the Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park

Here’s a limestone story related to Tennessee history:

When they built the Tennessee State Capitol in the 1850s, they used limestone mined near Nashville for the interior and exterior of the building. The exterior columns did not age well and eventually began falling apart, which required that they be replaced in the 1950s with a higher grade of limestone.

They found this higher-grade limestone in Indiana. So the columns that surround the Tennessee State Capitol did not come from Tennessee.

By the way, what’s left of the old columns can be found at the Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, near the Capitol.

This old bank lobby has a lot of marble in it.
PHOTO: AmSouth Bank


If you go into an old government building or a bank you may see a lot of marble — a hard and smooth grade of limestone.

Some of the best marble in the world comes from East Tennessee, which is the reason Knoxville is known as the “Marble City.”

In fact, most of the marble in the U.S. Capitol building came from Tennessee.

One of the larger marble mining companies in Tennessee is the Tennessee Marble Co., which is based in Blount County. Click here to be taken to its web site, which contains a lot of photographs of marble.

A zinc mine in Jefferson County


Just about everything metal and gray contains zinc (an element that prevents rust). The highway guardrail contains zinc. So do chain link fences. So does the body of your car.

Tennessee is one of the leading states in America for zinc mining, and you can find zinc mines in Knox and Jefferson counties.

Tennessee’s best known zinc mine is the Pasminco Mine in Smith County, near Carthage. The Pasminco Mine consists of a network of tunnels that, if stretched out, would be 450 miles in length.

The Ducktown Basin in the 1960s


Tennessee no longer contains an active copper mine, but it used to. The natural environment in large parts of Polk County has been greatly affected by copper mining that was done there in the late 19th century. In fact, until recently, copper mining and the remnants left behind by it were the reason that neither plants nor animals lived in the Ducktown Basin for many years.

However, there is now a massive cleanup effort in the Ducktown Basin.


Finally, Tennessee is also famous for its clay, which is used to make ceramics, rubber, sealant, kitty litter and many other things. The largest clay mine in Tennessee is in Henry County.

Click here to learn about things we make in Tennessee.