Newspaper Man Invited into Roan Mountain Mica Mine in 1890

A nameless correspondent had the unique privilege of touring a mica mine on Roan Mountain, Tennessee in 1890. The writer, obviously impressed with the stunning terrain, made some astute observations:

“Mountains after mountains and hills upon hills go rolling over the broad expanse and here and there is to be seen the swift mountain stream rushing on with furious speed and tireless course to the ocean, mother of all. The salubrity of the atmosphere is something to be wondered at and, if anything, will instill new life into the over-worked and indisposed city man.”

An overcoat was essential for those not acclimated to climbing steep declivities. The writer declared that the only way to travel there was on a mountain mule, a sure-footed critter with no danger of falling off, as it meanders over places where man would not dare to tread.

The country of East Tennessee in the late 1800s was sparsely settled and consequently not in a very high state of cultivation. Although the mountain’s thick wooded forests produced the finest timber in the world, they were so inaccessible to railroads and waterways that land could be obtained for five dollars an acre. Lumbering was one of the principal vocations of the people. Some coal mining was pursued because it could be found all over the area in considerable abundance.

A crew of mine workers graciously invited the reporter to descend into their mica mine with them. It began with a scenic drive to the mine site on roads uncommonly smooth for mountain treks. Upon arrival, the reporter encountered “a strange kind of people.” They lived peacefully with very little commercial intervention from outsiders. They raised crops and hunted meat on their land. When they obtained enough mica from the mine, they shipped it off in low wagons, drawn by mountain mules, to be used in exchange for clothing and other necessities that their land could not produce.

The machinery of the mine was crude compared to those found in larger ventures in other regions. The party was then precariously lowered 60 feet through a shaft by a rickety machine, which consisted of a rough platform attached to a rope that was powered by two brawny looking fellows.

When the group reached their subterranean destination, their special guest was introduced to mica, being told that the ore could only be obtained by blasting. The group then walked down several dark little corridors, almost freezing to death, until they spotted the ore they were seeking.

One massive six-foot gentleman, who appeared to be the boss, ordered blasting power to be brought out. There was no dampness detected in the mines; nor were there any noxious gas explosion concerns to deal with. The miners wore ordinary oil lamps on their hats because regular lamps used in other mines were unnecessary with mica.

The journalist then noticed some safety manhole covers in the mine with doors on them that allowed personnel access. After powder was placed in strategic positions, the fuse was ignited and every man scampered into a manhole for protection. Following the explosion, their visitor started to exit the barrier, but was quickly warned to stay inside to keep from smothering to death from dust and smoke. After a few moments, the all clear was given and everyone exited the enclosure to claim the prize – enough mica for a couple of cartloads. Also present were general debris and dirt.

After the waste was removed, each blast yielded enough mica to fill a bushel container. The miners were restricted to two blasts a day due to smoke and gas rising from the burning of powder.

As the correspondent departed the mine, he felt sorry for the individuals who made a living in this crude manner. Although the mine was not very profitable, he later found out that it yielded the purest mica than any mine located in the country.