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  • Ann Chambless
    Nov 21, 2002
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      Of all the Jackson County caves, and in fact of all the Alabama caves
      that had been worked for saltpeter, Sauta Cave was the one most
      remembered and recorded.
      A complete account of the actual mining operation at Sauta Cave during
      1861-1863 is not possible from contemporary records. The combination
      of extant original documents with later observations, however, makes it
      possible to reconstruct a portion of the story.
      A general description of the mining practices must rely on 20th century
      accounts by John R. Kennamer, Sr. (from his HISTORY OF JACKSON COUNTY,
      AL recently republished and available from the Jackson County Historical
      Association, for a check in the amount of $23.00 payable to the JCHA
      BOOK ACCOUNT, P. O. Box 1494, Scottsboro, AL 35768.)
      Mr. Kennamer recorded that to move the saltpeter-bearing dirt out of the
      cave a tram was built of sweet gum poles (about 800 feet long) on which
      "the dirt was hauled in carts drawn by two mules tandem." Supposedly,
      this tram, which was "four feet wide, with ties laid five feet apart, on
      which wooden runners were fastened," had "side tracks at two or three
      points." The dirt was dumped "into about 50 hoppers built near the
      opening of the cave." Leach water was conveyed a quarter mile via
      "troughs" from a spring "near the top" of the mountain. After the
      dirt was leached the "beer" was mixed with the leachwater of wood ashes
      or potash, which precipitated a chemical reaction substituting the
      potassium in potash for calcium in "cave saltpetre" to form potassium
      nitrate. The liquid was then boiled in large kettles until crystals of
      saltpeter (niter) was formed. Then the crude, or, as it was called,
      "grough" saltpeter, was packed in "boxes and barrels hauled to the
      railroad station at Larkinsville (AL) and shipped."
      The bulk of the mining appears to have taken place at what is now called
      the "Catacombs," abut 800 feet inside the cave. There the miners
      "actually tunneled under the cave floor," through a cave fill consisting
      of a "sandy clay matrix containing many pebbles and cobbles." Here
      approximately 20, 765 cubit feet of earth was removed from 435 feet of
      "criss-crossing tunnels" five to eight feet high, with arched ceilings,
      and three to five feet wide, interrupted by occasional deep test pits.
      At one spot the miners dug beneath a huge boulder and braced it with
      large logs. This became know to late visitors as the "Jack Rock."
      The entrance was described as originally a "ragged opening," but was
      ENLARGED by blasting to admit literally a mule and wagon.
      When in late 1862 Carlisle and Henderson transferred Sauta Cave to the
      Confederate government, they also transferred 3,140 acres "west of the
      wagon road" belonging to the French brothers, "together with all
      fixtures and appurtenances." The land was in Township Five, Range Four
      East, Sections 25, 26, 27, 34, 35, 24, 23, and 13.
      Attached to Carlisle and Henderson's lease was an inventory which
      revealed details about outbuildings and types of equipment.
      1 Dwelling House, 24 feet long, 16 feet wide, with dining room attached
      24 x 12 feet with 2 brick chimneys.
      1 Store House 33 x 16 feet attached to the dwelling with a brick
      chimney, counter, shelves, 2 glass windows (9 lights), writing desks,
      stock locks on doors.
      1 private office 14 x 10 feet, glass windows and stove.
      1 Dwelling House (half finished) 60 x 18 feet, 10 feet in clear.
      1 Carpenter Shop, 5 work benches, 50 x 18 feet.
      1 Black Smith Shop, stone forge and chimney.
      1 Tool House, 30 x 16 feet.
      1 Slaughter House, 14 x 14 feet.
      1 Shed attached 14 x 10 feet.
      2 Negro Houses 30 x 16 feet with floors and chimneys.
      23 Houses for Foreman and workmen , 20 x 15 feet, all floored.
      5 Negro Houses, on mountain, for hands getting ashes (houses to hold 60
      1 Stable, 75 x 28 feet, floored with plank.
      1 Mill Shed, 27 x 28 feet, attached to stable.
      1 Corn Crib and loft with Box for cut feed.
      1 Ox Shed, 102 x 16 feet, attached to Stable Lot, well watered, under a
      good fence.
      1 Stable for 4 riding horses, 20 x 12 feet, with loft.
      1 Shed for ashes.
      8 large Hoppers in cave to hold 40 cubic yards.

      NOTE: The list goes on for other equipment and hand tools.

      NOTE 2: The government paid Jeremiah L. and Henry L. French $200.00
      per month rent for use of the cave. In addition to ownership the
      brothers profited by selling various items to the works. In January
      1863, the French brothers sold "806 feet plan for nitre Boxes" and 8
      gallons tar "for patching tanks," and four weeks later "750 feet
      Sheeting Plank." They also occasionally hired their draft animals and
      wagons to do hauling at the cave. On Aug 3, 1861, owners Jeremiah L.
      and Henry French leased the cave "together with all the lands situated
      west of the wagon road to Joseph W. Dunkerley of Knoxville, TN "for a
      monthly rent of $200.00. On December 9, 1861, Dunkerley , in turn,
      transferred his lease to Hugh Carlisle and George L. Henderson of
      Marshall Co, AL. Carlisle and Henderson operated the cave mining
      operation until about November 1, 1862. Then, for a consideration of
      $34,000, they transferred their lease and sold all their fixtures,
      machinery, outbuildings, and right of use of surrounding lands to the
      Confederate government. Mining was then conducted by the CSA until the
      return of Union troops forced a permanent CSA evacuation of the works
      during the summer of 1863.
      REFERENCE: Official Records (called ORs), Series 4, 2:29; and Carlisle
      and Henderson file, Citizens Papers, National Archives.

      NOTE 3: Now that I have told you more than you ever wanted to know
      about Sauta Cave and saltpeter mining, I will say "Good luck in your
      Ancestor Searchin' in Jackson County, AL."

      Ann B. Chambless, Editor, JACKSON COUNTY CHRONICLES, published by
      Jackson County Historical Association, P. O. Box 1494, Scottsboro, AL
      35758. Annual Membership Dues: $10.00
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