History & Nostalgia
History on a Stick: The Ore Knob Mine
By Michael C. Hardy
For much of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, mining was big business in western North Carolina. The first gold rush in the United States took place in the greater Charlotte area in the 1820s and 1830s. Mining iron ore from Cranberry and mica from the Spruce Pine mica belt lasted well into the mid-1900s, providing jobs and a rail link to the outside world. Marble, rubies, sapphires, garnets, emeralds, aquamarine, feldspar, kaolin, and copper round out the major mining industries, some of which are still practiced today.
It is not entirely clear who discovered the copper mines in Ashe County or when. Owen Ballou purchased property at Ore Knob in Ashe County, and while looking for iron ore found copper, but did not pursue it. The property was later sold for taxes in 1848. In February 1855, a group of investors began working the mine, but due to the cost of moving the copper to the nearest railroads, the mine closed the following year. The mine did not reopen until July 1873, under the direction of Clayton and Company of Baltimore, Maryland. New machinery was installed, and in just one year, 400,000 pounds of copper was mined. A town, known as Ore Knob, was established by the General Assembly in March 1875. At one time, it boasted 700 residents, with a school, churches, post office, and a bank. Local historian Arthur Fletcher considered the Ore Knob Mine the “leading copper producer of the United States.”
In 1877, the price of copper began to decline. Work continued until 1880, when mining ceased altogether. From December 1883 until 1962, mining took place sporadically, eventually producing 31,000 tons of copper, with smaller amounts of gold and silver. The town of Ore Knob rose and declined just like the mines, and today there is only a quiet crossroads where there was once a bustling community.
There were other copper mines in the area. Ashe County also had the Peach Bottom Mine and the Copper Knob Mine, while not far away in Watauga County was the Elk Knob Mine. As with the Ore Knob Mine, the cost of mining the copper and getting it to market far outweighed the profit; the Ore Knob Mine outlasted the others. In 1954, the state of North Carolina erected a state historical marker at the intersection of County Road 88 and Little Peak Road.