The Murphy Marble Belt (MMB) is a long, lens-shaped mass of marble and related sedimentary materials up to three miles wide that extends in a crescent from northwestern Georgia into Cherokee and Swain counties in North Carolina. This lens also contains talc, limestone, soapstone, and calcareous soils. The first two materials are still mined at the Nantahala Talc and Limestone Co. in the Nantahala Gorge. But it was marble that was once the linchpin of the area’s mining interests.
Some extraction of marble took place in Swain and Cherokee counties during the 19th century. But it wasn’t until the arrival of the railroad from Asheville in the 1890s that moving the excavated blocks became economically feasible on a large scale.
The Kinsey Quarry was opened southwest of Murphy by the Notla Marble and Talc Co. in 1900. In 1902 the Regal Marble Co. opened a number of quarries in Cherokee County, providing employment for 30 men. This company was purchased by the Columbia Marble Co., which moved into new headquarters located near Marble in 1931. A modern plant was built there, with machinery installed for cutting and finishing the marble.
The MMB in North Carolina produced two types of marble: regal blue and sterling gray. These are crystalline in texture, being primarily limestone that has been metamorphosed into marble. Examples of both types can be observed throughout Cherokee County in various homes, public buildings and walls. The most evident structure is the very handsome Cherokee County Courthouse.
Marble quarried from the Georgia portion of the MMB was used for the statue in the Lincoln Memorial. I have also been told that marble mined in the Nantahala Gorge was used, in part, in the construction of the state courthouse in Raleigh.
Then, in the latter half of the 20th century, the marble industry declined and ultimately ceased to exist in southwestern North Carolina. It was apparently more feasible in economic terms to extract and transport marble mined down in the Georgia tip of the MMB.
At about the time the marble industry was phasing out, the whitewater industry arrived on the scene. And it, too, was based on geology of the MMB.
In 1907, Arthur Keith of the U.S. Geological Survey observed the abnormal, almost right-angled bend to the east that the Nantahala
River makes as it enters the lower portion of the Nantahala Gorge (where the power plant and raft put-in areas are presently situated.) Keith theorized that the river originally ran northward from the Georgia line directly through a water gap (just east of present Topton) into the Talula Creek watershed in present Graham County, and on into the Little Tennessee below where Fontana Dam was built.
The situation represents a textbook instance of stream piracy, whereby a small creek eating back westward through the soft, limestone strata of the MMB in the lower gorge captured the original Nantahala, causing it to change course and flow back to the east, thereby creating the dramatic Nantahala Gorge as we know it today. More recent geologists have not, to my knowledge, challenged Keith’s theory.
Accordingly, like the marble mines that flourished not so long ago, the whitewater setting upon which the rafting industry is dependent is an outgrowth of geological processes that took place millions of years ago in the MMB. From hard marble blocks to soft rubber rafts in less than a single generation.