In 1873 the Ohio newspaper, the Cambridge Jeffersonian asked a burning question:
IS IT A VOLCANO?
Three miles from Bainbridge, Ross County, is located a hill of considerable altitude known as “Copperas Mountain.” Out of the top of this mountain issues a constant stream of smoke, while, on its summit and general surface the vegetation has withered and died, until the whole hill presents a barren, sterile and desolate aspect, blasted as if by a whirlwind of fire. The ground on the top of the hill is so uncomfortably hot that it is almost impossible for a barefooted person to walk there. It is believed by persons who have visited and inspected this lusus naturae, that the entire interior of the hill is a mass of ignited combustible matter, and that the fire is and has been spreading with considerable rapidity. The theory presented to account for this strange phenomena, is that on or about the first day of last October, the party to whom the land belongs, was burning brush on the hill side, and that the flames communicated to inflammable matter, probably crude oil, coal, or other combustible substances, contained in the geological formation of the hill, and that the hill being full of such matter, the fire gradually gained headway until the interior has become a mass of molten metal. The quenching of the fire is, of course, impossible from its situation, and how long it will burn, and when, if ever, the fire will reach a point where it can be controlled can only be conjectured. At present there is no danger to be apprehended to property in the vicinity, but there is no telling what shape the thing may eventually take, and there are not wanting those whose imaginative disposition leads them to predict that this is but the beginning of what may turn out to be a young volcano. The Cambridge [OH] Jeffersonian 23 January 1873: p. 4
Twenty-nine years later, Copperas Mountain was again in the news:
HAS OHIO A VOLCANO?
COPPERAS MOUNTAIN IN ROSS COUNTY CAUSING ALARM
SMOKE ISSUES FROM CREVICES IN THE MOUNTAIN SIDE
THE OUTCROPPING SLATE RED HOT
FROM WHICH SULPHUROUS FUMES ARISE
MYSTERIES SCIENCE ONLY CAN EXPLAIN
Washington C.H., Sept. 18. Standing like a sturdy sentinel jealously guarding the picturesque Paint Creek Valley, three miles south of Bainbridge, the garden spot of Southern Ohio, old Copperas Mountain towers above the surrounding hills of Ross County, making them sink into insignificance beside its stately peaks….
But Copperas, like Mt. Pelee, bids fair to prove a treacherous friend. Its stolid, calm exterior, which has stood for centuries, keeping watch and guard over the fertile valley and its busy inhabitants, is now disturbed by internal dissension and the muttering of the approaching storm is heard. Copperas Mountain is on fire.
From the crevices in the slate, which from time to time scales off and falls with a crash into the creek below, may now be seen tiny columns of smoke arising, and closer investigation discloses the outcropping slate red hot. Where the heat is more intense the black slate has turned to a dull brown, and sulphurous fumes arise.
These volcanic symptoms have been noticed before by residents near the mountain, but not until the recent disaster in Martinique has any fear been felt or expressed.
About 20 years ago, according to the stories of the old citizens, Copperas Mountain sent forth smoke and perhaps some flame, which at the time caused a little excitement, but as it died away the people were lulled to peace again, and the incident was gradually forgotten. Several months ago smoke was again noticed on the mountain side, and when some fearless mountaineers laboriously climbed to the spot it was so hot they could stand for a few moments only on the burning slate. About the time of the Pelee eruption some of the natives claim there was an increased activity on Copperas, and on dark nights small flames belched forth, and the smell of sulphur could be distinctly detected in the vicinity.
A great many people have become alarmed at these indications and think there may be some connection with Mt. Pelee, and that perhaps Paint Valley is in danger of a disaster similar to that of the Island of Martinique only on a smaller scale. Others scoff at this and say it is only the outcropping of sulphur and copperas which has become fired by the heat of the sun and that there is no need to fear an eruption.
The sides of the mountain where the smoke has recently been seen is so precipitous that it is almost impossible to make a close investigation unless someone is lowered by means of a rope from the top of the mountain. As the heat is so great, no one has yet been willing to undertake this method of investigation, but it is now possible some action will be taken by scientists to get the actual facts and discover if there are any volcanic symptoms.
Copperas Mountain takes its name from the large deposits of copperas. As the mighty flakes scale off from time to time and fall into the valley the copperas gathers on the exposed places, and can easily be seen. Sulphur springs abound in the vicinity of the mountain….Science alone can discover the secret hidden in its stony breast. The Newark [OH] Advocate 18 September 1902
Copperas is iron sulfate, also known as iron vitriol. It has a greenish color and was used in inks and dyes, as well as other industrial applications.
As the next article reveals, Science, in the person of geologist Willard Hayes, rather deflatingly solved the mystery.
SAYS THERE IS NO DANGER AT COPPERAS MOUNTAIN.
ATTENTION OF WASHINGTON GEOLOGISTS CALLED
TO THE FUMING MOUND IN OHIO
There is no danger of Copperas Mountain, located in Paint Creek Valley, near Bainbridge, Ross County, O., becoming an understudy of Mt. Pelee, according to the geologists of the United States Geological Survey.
The story sent over from Bainbridge yesterday to the effect that the people living in the valley were becoming alarmed over the appearance of the smoke and sulphurous gases at Copperas Mountain was read with interest by the Government geologists. The interest was tinctured heavily with amusement, for it is asserted there is not the slightest possible danger of an eruption. Bainbridge is on the edge of the coal region in Southern Ohio and Copperas Mountain is merely a hill. Very likely coal beds underlie it and their presence, in the opinion of the geologists, explains the smoke and gases.
“If the story is true that smoke and sulphurous gases are issuing from Copperas Mountain it is not difficult to account for them. There doubtless are coal deposits under the mountains and they probably have caught fire. Iron pyrite is usually associated with coal and oxidizes when it comes in contact with the air, forming iron sulphate of copperas. It is usually found impregnated with water from coal mines. Iron pyrites in sufficient quantities may catch fire by spontaneous combustion and ignite the coal. When it burns it forms ‘sulphurous’ fumes, and I infer from the story that it is this kind of fumes which the people in Paint Creek Valley have seen.
“There is not the remotest chance of a volcanic eruption from Copperas Mountain nor any other seismic disturbances. There are no volcanic mountains in the State of Ohio, and as for their being any connection between Copperas and Pelee, it is wholly impossible.” The Newark [OH] Advocate 19 September 1902: p. 6
Dr. C. Willard Hayes was a distinguished geologist with the United States Geological Survey. Judging from the many times he is mentioned in the newspapers, he seems to have been our go-to scientist, sent all over the world to inspect smoking fumaroles, predict earthquakes, and reassure the public. The 1902 explosion of Mount Pelee, a volcano in the Caribbean, was considered the deadliest volcanic disaster of the 20th century. The eruption and pyroclastic flows killed about 30,000 people and destroyed the town of St. Pierre, Martinique on May 8th. This was extensively covered in the papers and would have been on the minds of the local people, especially as it was reported that fissures emitting sulphurous vapors were seen just days before the Mount Pelee eruption. The Copperas Mountain fire was reported to have burnt out by 1921. Coal fires can burn for centuries. See for example, this page below about the New Straitsville Mine Fire in Perry County: http://www.ohiohistoryhost.org/ohiomemory/archives/216.
A coal fire is probably the best explanation for this Copperas copy-cat in Carrollton, Ohio:
Smoke has been issuing from a high hill near Carrollton and the people think it is a volcano. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 2 March 1881: p. 1
Mysterious volcanos seemed to be a minor fortean theme of vintage newspapers. With world-wide syndication came reports about eruptions at Mt. Etna, Krakatoa (which exploded 26- 27 August 1883), Mt. Pelee, and Mauna Loa, thrilling the man on the farm and in the street and heightening awareness of smoking mountains in peoples’ backyards. In 1859, a volcano was reported in Shasta County, California. The editor of the Shasta Republican said of the author of the report: “the doctor’s imagination is far more active than any volcano in our county or State.” In Florida’s Pinhook/Makulla Swamp, a pillar of smoke by day and of fire by night was improbably thought to be a volcano, but no one could get close enough to find out until one intrepid soul claimed he had visited the “Devil’s Chimney,” stating that the “volcano” was probably flaming oil and natural gas. Chimney Rock, near Mechanicstown, began spewing black smoke in 1886 and was described as “Maryland’s Pet Volcano.” In 1894, the year that Mexico’s Popocatepetl came alive, Anniston, Alabama was said to be the site of volcanic rumblings and sulphuric stenches, but the inquisitive found only a forest fire. In 1874 the vicinity of Bald Mountain (McDowell County, North Carolina) was shaken by mysterious rumblings and tremblings. Families living around the base were said to have fled what they feared was an impending eruption:
The latest accounts from the disturbed mountain state that so far there has been no volcanic eruptions of lava or fire, though the terrific noise and internal rumblings, heard at a distance, were so great yesterday morning as to induce the belief that a veritable and genuine volcanic outbreak had taken place.
The excitement throughout the entire western section of the state is intense, and many people are repairing to the scene in the hope of witnessing for the first time a grand volcanic eruption. N.Y. Herald Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 19 March 1874: p. 1
One of these faux-volcano reports led to a report unique in the annals of forteana:
An account dated at Courtland, Alabama, states that a gentleman, who had recently passed that place, gave information that the meteoric stones which fell in Tennessee on the 9th of May, were ascertained to have been thrown from a volcano, that has broken out in Sumner county, between Gallatin and the Kentucky line. National Gazette [Philadelphia, PA] 24 July 1827: p. 1
Meteors vomited out of a Tennessee volcano–now that would have been worth dodging lava bombs to see.
The Copperas Mountain stories are an excerpt from The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales. The book is also available in a Kindle edition.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com.