A couple of weeks ago, Norman Long guided a few members of the Bethel Rural Community Organization to the top of a ridge above his house in Long’s Cove (once known as the Chinquapin Grove community).
While rubbing bloody briar pricks and huffing and puffing, we gazed down in amazement into an enormous yawning gash in the hilltop. Norman allowed that this giant hole, which appeared to be a hundred feet deep and maybe two hundred yards long, was made by kaolin clay miners one hundred years ago.
Clinging to a sturdy tree limb and taking great care not to fall in, I peered into the deep chasm to get a good look at the bottom. Although overgrown with trees and underbrush, the enormity and significance of what I saw was plainly obvious. Bethel was once host to a substantial mining operation, of all things.
Claiming rights to the kaolin
Local lore credits foraging pigs belonging to Norman’s Grandmother Mary Long with discovering the kaolin deposit on a ridge well above her home in the Chinquapin Grove community.
A white powdery substance covering the pigs’ snouts was tested and it proved to be kaolin, a clay mineral used for making chinaware. The find was located about one mile southeast of Woodrow, North Carolina and near the Tennessee and North Carolina Railroad (T&NCRR).
This was the short branch line which connected the logging and sawmill enterprises at Sunburst with the Murphy Branch of the Southern Railway system at Canton.
In 1916, Dr. C.J. Hand of Swain County purchased the mining rights from the widow Mrs. Long and several other heirs-at-law of her late husband T.B. Long. The deed signed by the parties authorized Hand’s claim for “all the kaolin clay in and under a certain piece or parcel of land” where members of the Long family then resided.
Dr. Hand agreed to mine 40 tons of kaolin clay per week and pay the Longs fifty cents per ton in royalties. At the end of each 52-week period, the Longs would also receive an additional four thousand dollars, less previous royalties paid.
Further bargains between Dr. Hand and the Longs were made for the property rights of portions or parcels of land upon which “buildings could be erected for the purpose of washing, pressing, and drying the kaolin clay” and housing the necessary machinery.
Allowances were made as well for the necessary “side tracts [sic], flumes, ditches, tram-roads, coal-bins, roads for ingress and egress, and such other buildings and work as may be necessary for the most economical” mining operation.
Dr. Hand also anticipated the need for tram cars to transport kaolin from the mine to the T&NCRR, where it could be easily loaded in rail cars and transported to customers.
In fact, he negotiated a deal with another widow, Mrs. Mary K. Terrell, wife of the deceased William Stewart Terrell, acquiring the rights to run his tram line across the large Terrell farm lying next to the West Fork of the Pigeon river and between the mine and the railroad.
In consideration of these tram rights granted by Mrs. Terrell, Dr. Hand agreed to designate the W.S. Terrell & Sons Company — a general merchandise store located along the tram route — as the exclusive commissary of the Hand Clay Company.
Time tickets printed and issued to the clay company’s employees would be redeemable in merchandise at the Terrell’s store. In turn, the Hand Clay Company would pay cash to purchase back these same time tickets held by the W.S. Terrell & Sons Co.
Finally, late in the year 1916, Dr. C.J. Hand executed two additional legal instruments to allow his mining venture to go forward.
He established the Hand Clay Company, with its principal office in Canton, conveying to the new corporation all the mining rights he had previously obtained. And, interestingly, he appointed the Harris Clay Company out of Dillsboro, as the exclusive agent for the sale and distribution of all the kaolin clay (or China clay) that was produced at the Hand Clay Company mine.
This deal established a price of $9 per ton for kaolin delivered and loaded on rail cars at the T&NCRR station in Woodrow.
The kaolin mining operation
A 1907 trade bulletin labelled the Long’s kaolin deposit the “Sonoma prospect,” Sonoma being the name of that particular rural area of Bethel in those days.
At the time, the prospective mine consisted of a “single pit 15-feet deep on the top of a ridge three-fourths mile south of Sonoma.”
In late 1916 and 1917, during the first year or so of the Hand Clay Company’s operation, miners labored exclusively in an open excavation, using picks and shovels to dig the raw material from the ground. The crude kaolin was then loaded in minecarts and pushed over rails to the head of a water flume nearby.
The higher elevation of the mine afforded a convenient grade for sluicing the kaolin down a wooden trough to a processing plant in the valley below.
The deposit was being worked in two open cuts by 1918, each about 20-feet deep and 90-feet wide. Two tunnels, approximately 55-feet and 125-feet long, were eventually excavated through the walls of the open cuts to facilitate the passage of minecarts.
According to one source, the tunnels had lights installed in them to illuminate the passageways.
To reach deeper into the ground to get at the clay, two shafts were also opened to extract the material. These vertical shafts—or circular-shaped pits—were 15 to 20 feet in diameter and sunk in 4-feet high lifts as the kaolin clay was excavated.
Timbers were used to form and support the earthen wall of each shaft, allowing the excavation to proceed deeper and deeper. A horse-powered hoisting apparatus and buckets were used to lift the excavated material out of the shafts. By 1919, one of the shafts had reached a depth of almost one hundred feet.
Once the kaolin material was excavated, it was conveyed downhill by a water flume to the valley below, where the refining processes were installed in huge sheds. The first steps in the process involved removing impurities from the kaolin, such as fine sand, quartz, and mica.
To accomplish this, the Hand company used specialized equipment identified as washers, sand wheels, sand and mica troughs, and screens. After being run through these different stages utilizing large quantities of water, the purified kaolin was then concentrated in tanks using alum as a flocculator.
The thickened kaolin was then run into an agitator before being pumped to a press. The heavy steel and cast-iron pressing equipment compressed the kaolin into cakes containing only 8 to 20 percent water. These cakes were then placed directly on steam pipes in the drying shed.
When sufficiently dried, the kaolin was shoveled off the steam pipes into tram cars and conveyed to the railroad depot.
Interestingly, it was determined early on that the water demands of the flume and kaolin refining process exceeded the quantity of water being provided by a pumping station located next to the West Fork river.
Therefore, in early 1917, the Hand Clay Company purchased rights to use the water from springs located on the property owned by Joseph Decatur Justice and his wife Etta Justice, heirs of the deceased T.B. Long.
For the relatively low sum of $30, the Justices granted the water rights and agreed “not to in any manner whatsoever interfere with the flow of the water from said Springs or to in any manner whatsoever contaminate the water from said Springs…”
This water deal appears to be an example of how well the Justice and Long families cooperated with the mine company in order to keep the works running as efficiently and productively as possible. Of course, they had a stake in the operation — the royalties earned from the mining operation were an important income source for the families.
Conveyance to the Woodrow Depot
- A narrow-gauge tram line ran from the refining plant along a downhill grade to the iron-truss bridge that spanned the West Fork of the Pigeon River.After crossing the bridge, the wooden tram tracks followed the public road (today’s Market Street) that passed through the Terrell property to the foot of a hill below the Methodist Episcopal Church.
From there, the wood rails were laid along the bottom of the hillside to a railroad sidetrack on a lot owned by the W.S. Terrell & Sons Co., near the Woodrow depot. At this spot, the kaolin could be transferred to rail cars for shipment.
A wonderful account published by Bethel Middle School students in 1992 describes how the loaded tram cars were pulled by two mules, one in front of the other.
Upon leaving the processing plant, where there was a good downhill grade, the men would sometimes unleash the tram car from the mule team and let it coast by gravity all the way down to the West Fork river crossing. This source explains how the men would have to pile sand on the tracks to keep the tram car from running away and jumping the tracks.
After hooking the mules back up to the cars, the kaolin was hauled across the bridge and over the wooden rails to the Woodrow depot. Once there, the load was dumped into a waiting railcar to be hauled over the T&NCRR to nearby Canton.
At that railroad junction, the carload of kaolin was transferred to the Southern Railway’s network and shipped to customers who used the mineral to manufacture porcelain, china and other types of whiteware products.
Another intriguing tidbit of information uncovered by the Bethel Middle School students in their excellent expose of the mining operation reveals that the tram cars did not return to the mine empty.
Instead, they were loaded with coal at the Woodrow depot yard before being hauled back to the kaolin refining plant. The coal was used to fuel at least two boilers associated with the plant. These provided steam to generate electricity, power the steam-driven water pump at the river, and provide heat for drying the compressed kaolin.
A scientific bulletin published in 1925, titled The Kaolins of North Carolina, states that the Hand clay mine at Sonoma was purchased by the Harris Clay Company. Although documentation to support this assertion has not been found, it is a fact that the Hand Clay Company leased all its mining and refining operations to the Harris Clay Company in 1920.
At the time of the bulletin’s publication in 1925, the kaolin deposit was not completely exhausted, and was still being worked by the Harris Clay Company.
It was indeed a memorable experience — the arduous trek up the mountain to the old mining scar that looms over Norman Long’s home.
On that Chinquapin Grove hilltop, we saw the remnants of a century-old kaolin mine. Where once men worked, wielding picks and shovels and pushing mine carts to and fro, there were only steep cliffs, a giant chasm, and a forest of trees sprouting from the earth’s kaolin clay residue.
Thanks to Norman, a well-kept secret was laid bare to us that day. Who would have figured that a mining industry flourished in Bethel 100 years ago?
- This is the same “Phoenix-Column” truss bridge that local men relocated a short distance upstream in the mid-1920s and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2019.
Note: Research information for this article was taken from the following sources: a publication titled Pigeon Valley, pp 13-20, compiled by Bethel Middle School students (1992); two trade bulletins, Mining and Treatment of Feldspar and Kaolin (1913) and The Kaolins of North Carolina (1925); contracts and lease agreements found in Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library Special Collections; and Haywood County’s deed records.
Carroll C. Jones of Bethel has written numerous historical books of the region. Visit his website at http://carrolljones.weebly.com.
Jones was born and raised in the papermill town of Canton, located in the heart of western North Carolina’s mountains. He is descended from the Hargrove, Cathey, Shook, Moore, and Crymes families who pioneered Haywood County. His latest book is titled Thomson’s Pulp Mill: Building the Champion Fibre Company at Canton, N.C.—1905 to 1908. Find out more about Carroll’s books on his website http://carrolljones.weebly.com.