About a dozen planned or existing rock quarries in Tennessee have been recently opposed, and in some cases stopped, by coalitions of residents and local environmentalists. Residents don’t like the quarries’ explosions, noise, possible damage to wells and heavy truck traffic; environmentalists oppose the runoff of silts from crushed rock and sand that can clog local streams, harm sensitive wildlife and enter the water table to damage caves and groundwater.
But the quarries keep coming because of an insatiable demand for concrete — and more importantly, asphalt.
In the 1960s, a new interstate highway system reshaped Tennessee, providing lifelines to cities and development. The new roads also shaped me. This is a story about an ongoing quarry fight in Grundy County — one that threatens a historic-tour cave, rare life and several quiet neighborhoods. But the threads that tie me to it wind through my Florida childhood, and for me, this is where the story begins.
I grew up in Ormond Beach, Fla., a place so flat that auto racing first began on its hard-packed beach. Once a year, my parents would load my sister and me into the family station wagon and head north to visit relatives in Kentucky and Illinois. The route got exciting when it hit Middle Tennessee. I can still see my father white-knuckled on the old Monteagle grade, cursing every semi and curve. For a kid from a spit of sand in the Atlantic, the actual mountains provided a storybook landscape. Limestone cliffs and mist-shrouded hardwoods hinted at lurking dinosaurs, or perhaps dragons.
In December 1967, shortly after I turned 8, the opening of Interstate 24 radically changed our annual drive. Smooth new highways shortened three days of travel to two. The view north of Chattanooga now opened dramatically above a pastoral valley. It felt as though we were flying over farms and cows, like in the opening scene of The Sound of Music — the first movie I saw in a theater. In the center of the green fairyland below the interstate, a gigantic red arrow pointed at a hillside. The arrow bore enormous white words designed to excite any 8-year-old: “WONDER CAVE.”
Over the next few years, I must have begged my parents to drive to that cave in the valley a half-dozen times. They never would, although they did once stop for the cavern tour at Ruby Falls, which was enough to cement my lifetime fascination with Tennessee caves. Ironically, the opening of I-24 shifted traffic miles away from Wonder Cave, which sat in the valley along old 41. This vastly reduced visitation — 90 percent in the first year. By 2000, the cave, open to visitors since 1902, had permanently closed its doors to the public.
Perhaps because of those childhood memories, in 2014 I began following the website of South Pittsburg, Tenn., cavers Kelly Smallwood and her husband Jason Hardy as they began a modern survey of Wonder Cave. The couple charted new passages more than doubling Wonder’s previously mapped length. They soon extended their survey to include nearby Crystal Cave, which drains Wonder, and Smith Hollow Cave, which sits a half-mile from the former tour cave.
In October 2021, they discovered a well-decorated dome room at the back of Smith Hollow containing a 93-foot waterfall — 15 feet taller than Ruby Falls. Ron Winton, 67, owns the cave and 188 acres of Smith Hollow, and his children live in two houses and a cabin on the property. When Smallwood and Hardy took the family down the challenging muddy trek to see the waterfall (details to come below), Ron’s daughter Teri Winton was awestruck.
“It’s just amazing to think something like that is in your own backyard,” says Winton. “The water carved this beautiful room, and it’s never been touched or tampered with.”
Not necessarily, it turns out.
While few people have seen Smith Hollow’s pristine waterfall in person, recent dye tracing suggests that the water itself may have been “tampered with” by a new quarry operating directly upstream from the cave (and other nearby caves). The Clouse Hill Sand Quarry, bordered by the Timberwood gated community and the Retreat at Deer Lick Falls, opened in the spring. As the cavers and the Wintons seek to protect these caves and the rare life within them, other residents and the Grundy County government have united to stop the quarry in court. Strikingly similar battles have popped up elsewhere in the state.
What lies at the intersection of these disputes is asphalt, a seemingly endless ribbon of bitumen that for better or worse glues the state together. Tennessee boasts 1,201 miles of interstate and another 14,677 of state-maintained highways, according to the Department of Transportation. Over the past half-century, interstates especially have radically transformed communities, blurring old lines between town and country. In current-day Tennessee, rural farmhouses get DIY upgrades from lawyers and neurosurgeons. Football games and stadium concerts lie within driving distance. As Nashville housing costs skyrocket, bedroom communities reach ever further from the city, reviving small towns that the highways once killed off.
The idea of retiring to a quiet Tennessee farm on 100 or so acres becomes evermore attractive when you can do so within an hour of medical centers, hip restaurants and organic groceries. But the combined interstates, state roads, housing developments, industrial parks and long driveways create an almost insatiable demand for asphalt. In March, Nashville’s Music City Center hosted the World of Asphalt conference, which bills itself as the world’s “leading trade show on asphalt.” It featured 400 vendors and 120 educational sessions on making roads stronger, cheaper and more sustainable. Country bands played alongside very big machines.
Some of the biggest caves in Tennessee are found in the Monteagle limestone. The rock formation was laid down about 340 million years ago during the Mississippian Period, when the floor of a shallow sea surrounded an island-like continent made up of parts of present-day Europe and North America. If you drive the Monteagle grade after a spring rain, you can see waterfalls shooting over this crisp white rock along I-24. The formation tends to form impressive cliffs, both above and below ground. A thin layer of sandstone separates its top from the Bangor limestone, another cave-bearing rock.
While water easily cleaves and carves limestone, it has a harder time working through the overlying sandstone layers, which provide a good roof for thousands of hidden caves below. The sandstones atop Grundy County’s stratigraphy — including on Clouse Hill — were laid down at the beginning of the Permian Period, when much of the North American landmass began to rise from the sea, creating beaches that would one day become stone.
Together, sandstone and limestone provide two of the principal materials for asphalt: sand and crushed rock. As a matter of course, most of the state’s asphalt manufacturers own the quarries that extract these raw materials, so the owners at the center of most court challenges are asphalt companies. In Grundy County, the target is Peter Tinsley, owner of Tullahoma-based Tinsley Asphalt, which has asphalt plants in South Pittsburg, Dechard and McMinnville.
In 2019, Michael and Barbara Ford purchased a home and five acres outside Monteagle at the end of a dead-end road on Clouse Hill.
“It was a beautiful, quiet place to retire,” says Michael, a former construction worker. “We wanted a space where we could be more self-sustaining.”
The couple began raising chickens, geese, guineas and goats. Across the street, 200 feet from their home, was a tree farm. In August of last year, the Fords noticed a crew cutting trees, and assumed the absent owner had decided it was time to harvest. A month later, a neighbor saw an electrical crew installing new power boxes. The neighbor approached the crew and talked for a bit, then walked over and knocked on the Fords’ door.
“Did you know they’re putting in a sand quarry across the street?” the neighbor asked.
“I had no idea,” Michael Ford answered.
To Ford, the information was just hearsay. But within a few weeks, bulldozers started moving dirt. A couple of homeowners from the nearby Timberwood subdivision stopped by to discuss the quarry, but the Fords — and all other neighbors they contacted — still knew nothing official. Meanwhile, the remaining tree stumps were cleared off the land. The owner dug two large holding ponds for the water he would need to crush rocks and otherwise convert a Permian seashore into asphalt makings.
In early spring, Ford saw someone driving around the site, examining work. He walked over to introduce himself. The man was owner Peter Tinsley.
“I want to be a good neighbor,” Tinsley told Ford. He indicated where the quarry operation would start, directly across from their home.
Ford later learned that is the standard line in the industry. “That’s part of a scripted response they use at every location,” he says.
The first blast was March 11. Ford had asked the site superintendent to let them know when blasting began, and he did — that first time with both a phone call and warning alarms at the quarry. Ford set up his phone to record a video of the effects. The second blast came a month later, with no warning.
“Just boom,” Ford said. “I was sitting on the bed. There was a small decorative pillow on a table beside me, and the explosion blew it a foot-and-a-half up in the air. We were so scared, and then we were so angry.”
The quarry permit allows 100 trucks per day to travel the dirt road, Ford says, and trucks have begun hauling material from the site daily. “There’s a plastic culvert under the road next to our driveway, and it’s already caving in from their activities. The noise is horrendous.”
A Hidden World
The state hides more than 11,000 known caves, according to the Tennessee Cave Survey. Rumbling Falls Cave, located beneath Fall Creek Falls State Park, was kept secret by its discoverers until the nearby town of Spencer announced a new sewage plant that would dump treated effluent into a creek that fed directly into a seven-mile-long river winding through the cave. The cavers went public with a photo of the Rumble Room — a space larger than the Louisiana Superdome, entered via a 200-foot rappel from the ceiling — that bordered the river. A biologist cataloged rare species in and near the river, including the Tennessee cave salamander, the blind Tennessee cave crayfish, and a unique cave-adapted spider-like creature called the Appalachian cave harvestman.
The same organisms live in Smith Hollow and the Crystal-Wonder Cave system, where biologist Matthew Niemiller and his students recently cataloged them. He calls the Crystal-Wonder system “the state’s most diverse” for cave-obligate species — the permanent cave dwellers who lose pigment and eyesight, but gain special adaptations that help them live in darkness. Niemiller is concerned that sand carried by quarry runoff will alter their aquatic habitats.
“The biggest issue is that sand starts to fill up the interstitial spaces and small voids used by cave critters like the salamanders when they’re nesting,” says Niemiller, adding that the extra sand would likely affect surface life in creeks and streams as well.
I tend to run into cave salamanders in crawlways. These days I move slower when crawling than I did at 20. While slogging along in a tight space with close walls, my glasses get smudged and muddy. I squint to see whatever is near my head. The cheerful orange of the adult spotted-tail salamander (Eurycea lucifuga) is hard to miss: Brighter than my neon cave pants, with large eyes and decorative black spots, it could be a Disney cartoon character. The more rare Tennessee cave salamander (Gyrinophilus palleucus), usually pale salmon with frilly red gills, often rests in a few inches of water.
Whenever I crawl up beside either one, we tend to freeze in place for several minutes, eyeing each other cautiously before moving along and going about our business.
One neighbor who came by to visit the Fords, eyeball the quarry and solicit support was Linda Brookhart, a nonprofit director who owns a home in the Retreat at Deer Lick Falls. She had learned of a Tennessee organization helping community environmental efforts called SOCM (pronounced “Sock ’em”). The acronym of the 50-year-old organization originally stood for Save Our Cumberland Mountains, but as its outreach expanded, it changed to Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment.
SOCM quickly helped residents set up a website and print signage for Stop the Clouse Hill Sand Quarry. The Fords, cavers Smallwood and Hardy, and about 40 other residents attended the group’s first meeting. One resident discovered that Tinsley had announced his intentions in a “blurry, postage-stamp-sized” newspaper ad.
Brookhart contacted county Mayor Michael Brady, who explained that the county commission had previously passed a Grundy County Powers Act prohibiting exactly this sort of plant. Other resolutions passed in 2012 and 2019 required any quarry operation to maintain a buffer of at least 5,000 feet from any residence or commercial operation — more than 140 residences sit within 5,000 feet of the new quarry.
The county issued a cease-and-desist order. Tinsley countered that the county had never established a planning or zoning commission or properly established a zoning ordinance. The county answered that the statute authorizing the resolution doesn’t require them to do so. Both sides filed motions seeking summary judgment against each other, and a hearing for both parties is scheduled for Sept. 19.
Quarry Here, Quarry There
Bordering Grundy County on the west, Coffee County does have a zoning plan and votes on zoning regulations. When Hawkins Asphalt Paving, based in Wartrace, sought a zoning regulation to open a Coffee County quarry that would affect 71 caves and dozens of farms in 2020, more than 100 residents showed up to testify against it. The vote was delayed several times. I became aware of the fight from Facebook posts by Jenny McKee, a caving friend who lived near the proposed quarry site.
Almost simultaneously, a caving friend near Huntsville, Ala., posted on social media that a quarry there was planning to excavate an entire mountain — Butler Mountain — including several caves. He enlisted help from an Alabama water-quality group to fight the effort. I was able to write about both of these fights — and the cave animals threatened by them — in a conservation piece for The New York Times the following January. Eventually, both groups stopped the quarries for the moment, but both expect the owners to make future efforts to proceed.
And there are others.
James Allison was only 6 years old when the state of Tennessee opened a rock quarry that bordered his family farm about five miles east of Tucker’s Crossroads in Wilson County. The quarry had only one purpose: to procure limestone for the construction of nearby Interstate 40, which was completed in 1967. He recalls a layer of fine gray dust settling over everything and a neighbor’s well temporarily going dry. After I-40 opened, the quarry slowly returned to nature — until the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation issued a permit to Heritage Materials in 2020.
She says the roads and bridges, including one that goes over I-40, can’t handle the weight of quarry trucks, which have damaged the roads and guard rails. Her husband’s 150-acre family farm is one of three properties that abut the 117-acre quarry site. City water doesn’t run past the Allisons’ property. They fear for the well that serves their house and for the pond that waters their livestock.
The new quarry owners argue that they are exempt from current zoning because they’re grandfathered in by the interstate excavation 55 years ago. The county issued two stop-work orders not long after blasting began, and they were able to shut down the operation in May 2021, pending judicial review. With a judge’s permission, the county lawyer has joined the lawyer of the citizens’ group to challenge the TDEC permit, scheduled to be heard in Lebanon chancery court on Aug. 22.
A Majestic Roar
When Kelly Smallwood described the waterfall discovery at the end of Smith Hollow, owner Ron Winton was eager to see it.
His daughter Teri would not have described herself as a caver. “OK Dad, if you want to do it, we’ll go too,” she told him, referring to herself and her sister.
“How long will it take us to get back there?” she asked Smallwood.
The caver paused to consider the size and experience of the group. “Probably two or three hours.”
Holy crap, Teri thought. She had just watched a National Geographic documentary about the 2018 rescue of a dozen Thai boys trapped in a cave.
Smallwood instructed them on the sort of boots and clothing they should wear and provided helmets, cave lamps and small packs. At the appointed time, they geared up and set off.
Teri had been in the cave before, but she’d never noticed the shark’s tooth and other fossils that Smallwood pointed out along the way, trapped in limestone more than 300 million years earlier. She and her siblings had always turned around well before the point where cavers led them down a tight hole, lined with slick mud. But now, after walking further upstream, they were soon crawling on hands and knees. In one place, her chin was just above the water as she ducked under a boulder.
She saw her sister scooting easily through tight constrictions and her father attempting to follow. “Dad, you need to be following me,” she said. “I’m bigger.”
Although the cave was cool, she began to heat up when the group left the stream, crawling over rocks and cobbles toward the dome room. She could hear a faint growling sound ahead, which she realized was rushing water. The passage narrowed, but the rushing wind increased in speed, evaporating her sweat, blowing her bangs out behind her. She popped out near the top of the dome room to a majestic roar.
Smallwood and Hardy were waiting at the bottom of the large room. Teri hugged Smallwood tightly. “Thank you!” she yelled over the roar of the waterfall. “Thank you for taking us here — it’s amazing!”
One by one, Teri and her family waded through the current to climb upon a large, slick rock directly in the spray of the waterfall.
“I still can’t put into words how awesome it was,” she says now. Teri and her family posed on the rock for photos, ignoring the fact that they had to make the same uncomfortable trip back out again. Water hit them in the face, and they couldn’t stop grinning.
Two weeks later, Smallwood and Hardy returned to dump packets of harmless fluorescein dye into Dripping Springs and other water sources flowing from the sand quarry. This would show the couple if any of the sources fed local wells or nearby caves.
“We don’t have any access to city water — the well is our lifeline,” says Teri Winton, echoing what Linda Brookhart and Kathy Allison had already told me. She was excited when the dye trace was dropped upstream from their farm on a Sunday evening. After a few hours, she called her mom.
“Kelly says the dye has had time to get here,” Teri said. “Is your toilet water pink?”
Her mother put down the phone for a minute. “Yes, it’s pink.”
Teri called her brother. His toilet water was pink also. No, they hadn’t added colored toilet cleaner. Silt sent downstream from the top of the mountain, near the quarry, went to their well and to the cave stream.
Meanwhile, up on Clouse Hill Road, Michael Ford grits his teeth against the noise and waits for the September court date to arrive.
“The problem isn’t the fact of the quarry so much as the lack of care choosing a location,” Ford says. “Peter Tinsley could have bought land in Grundy County that’s not near houses or active farms. He chose that spot because the roads and utilities were there, and that saved him money.”
Tinsley did not respond to the Scene’s requests for comment in time for publication.
Regardless of the outcome of the Grundy County hearing, or of hearings in other counties, new quarries will pop up. Nearby residents will oppose them. Tennessee cave salamanders will search out small dark, dark hollows of streams that no human eyes will see. And the highway will wind on.
Tennessee Quarry Quarrels
Residents near operating or planned rock quarries have become increasingly vocal in opposing them across the state, citing blasting noise, road damage, dust, water pollution and reduced property values. Here is a partial sampling of recent and ongoing fights. Some locations are approximate.