To Explore

Natural Resources

Photo Text Here

All human society is dependent on 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. While it is true we are no longer as dependent on our own local natural resources as were our forebears, recent movements in sustainability suggest a return to understanding the importance of using these resources responsibly. The first step in this process requires us to inventory these resources. The 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 to make saltpeter 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 region remained primarily agrarian into the early 20th century. The 20th century saw industrial development and large-scale exploitation of geologic resources, 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 this region 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 that remained active in the region.

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. Drilling for and extracting petroleum has re-emerged as oil prices have increased, and production has grown in the region.

Rock and mineral resources that have seen commercial production in the area 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, some mining may return as prices rise.

In summary, although the 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.