The Preserved History of Durham

Plant Fossils from the Durham Mines, Walker County, Georgia
Contributed by Jose Santamaria, Executive Director at Tellus Science Museum

Atop Lookout Mountain in Northwest Georgia is a 1,000-acre tract once mined for coal. Known as the Durham mines, it is also one of the best places in Georgia to collect plant fossils from the Pennsylvanian period, which dates back to approximately 320 to 300 million years ago. Although most of the land is now state or privately owned, one section owned by the Lula Lake Land Trust is open to fossil collecting with advance permission. I have collected there more than 40 times over the years and many of my best finds are now in the collection of Tellus Science Museum.

The area was once a coastal swamp forest populated by the giant ancestors of ferns, seed ferns, club mosses and horsetails. As these plants died, they accumulated in the stagnant waters of the swamp bottom but did not fully decay because the water was too acidic and low in oxygen to support bacteria. Periodic flooding covered this organic material, called peat, with sediments. The waters would then recede, and the forest would flourish once again. This process happened over and over for millions of years, only ceasing when the land was uplifted into the Appalachian Mountains of today. Gradual compaction and heat eventually transformed the peat into layers of coal while the sediments hardened into layers of shale and sandstone. This process formed the vast Appalachian coal beds that stretch from Alabama into Pennsylvania, including the Durham mines area.

 Jose Santamaria collection
Tellus Science Museum collection

Records of mining at Durham date back to 1891, but mining for coal may have begun before the Civil War. The town, originally called Pittsburgh, changed its name to Durham when the Durham Iron and Coal Company took over operations. Mining was conducted mostly underground with convict labor leased from the state, the majority of whom were African Americans. A rail line was built from Durham down the mountain to Chickamauga, where ovens refined the coal into coke. This coal product, which burned longer and at a higher temperature than unprocessed coal, was shipped north to the iron furnaces in Chattanooga. Large-scale mining ended at Durham in the 1940s, although mining briefly returned to the area in the 1970s. The roadway going into the property is part of the old rail line, and you can still find rusty rail spikes when looking for fossils.

Entrance to the underground workings of the Durham mines, circa 1904 (from the Georgia Geologic Survey Bulletin #12 A Preliminary Report on the Coal Deposits of Georgia)

During mining, the shale and sandstone were separated from the coal and piled into dumps. Today, these dumps remain as ridges throughout the Lula Lake Land Trust property. These are the best places to collect. You will not find much in the sandstone, but the shale can reveal delicately preserved fossils when you split it. Leaf clusters of seed ferns such as MariopterisNeuropteris, and Sphenopteris in particular are especially abundant and make attractive specimens. If you are lucky, you may encounter impressions of the Lepidodendron, a giant lycopod whose tree trunk resembles tire tracks. 
There is plenty of material in the dumps of the Durham mines at the Lula Lake Land Trust. Fossils are relatively easy to collect, and the site can provide years of educational fossil collecting for everyone.

Neuropteris Pocahontas
Jose Santamaria collection
Tellus Science Museum collection

DID YOU KNOW? Durham is the newly acquired 486 acres by Lula Lake Land Trust (LLLT). This area on Lookout Mountain was previously used to provide progress after the Industrial Revolution. It was abandoned after the mining resources were exhausted. Now healed from its previous use, it is now a flourishing ecosystem. LLLT is in the process of building trails for daily recreational use with 11 miles already completed. 

Thank You to Those who Preserve History 

Long before our organization became Lula Lake Land Trust (LLLT), the corner of Lookout Mountain made famous by Lula Lake and Lula Falls was not very beautiful. Mining, dumped garbage, and timber harvests had ravaged the land. In 1958, our founders Robert and Helen Davenport began restoring the denuded beauty and richness back to the landscape until LLLT was formed in 1994. Could you imagine what the lands surrounding Lula Lake and Lula Falls would look like today without conservation work and crucial donor support? Thankfully, donors are the reason why our community will only know the story of this “gem of Lookout Mountain” in its preserved natural state.
The restoration of what is now known as Lula Lake marked the rewriting of history. Car tires, broken bottles, and bags of litter were removed to make room for a new story—our story. The story of Lula Lake continues to grow because of donors. They are the reason why hikers can escape reality and slip into nature, and they are to thank for the decades of memories made and a lifetime of memories awaiting future generations. The garbage dump of the past will never tarnish our watershed again because they chose to support our organization.
Conservation works best when we work together. If you would like to help us keep adding more chapters to our conservation story, please consider supporting our nonprofit organization with a donation. You can donate online or by mail at LLLT, PO BOX 395, Lookout Mountain, TN 37350. Please don’t hesitate to contact our Director of Development, Matthew, at if you have any additional questions.

Volunteer Spotlight:  Shelia Sawyers
Shelia began volunteering at Lula Lake back in 2012 after her first visit (with a scout group) in 2009. To her, volunteering was an opportunity to spend extra time on the Core Preserve and introduce others to nature. For the last decade, the wonder and beauty of Lula Lake has been her “happy place.” Shelia often remarks the amazing history of LLLT’s journey from a sordid dumping ground to nature that embodies the essence of peace. 

Her love for Lula continued, and this past year she has been bringing her boyfriend Brian along with her to volunteer. “He makes volunteering so much more fun and loves Lula just as much as I do!” she shared. 

As Shelia (and now Brian!) continue their dedication, she has advice to hopeful volunteers looking to get involved:

“Volunteering on a land preserve isn't always building a trail (although it is necessary) or welcoming people to the property and explaining the different trails on the map. Sometimes it’s cooking hot dogs for an event. Sometimes it’s helping park cars. Sometimes it’s simply checking people’s names off a list or even handing out cakes. Most of these jobs don’t require a lot of skill, just a willingness to help and a few hours of your time. I don’t have any trail building skills, but one time I did help with the building of the steps that go down to the waterfall. I helped to put the grooves in some of the steps to give more traction. Everyone that I have met that either works at LLLT, or volunteers with LLLT, do it because they really enjoy it. It’s a great way to meet new people who enjoy the same things you do. If you don’t want to do it alone, bring a friend and both of you sign up to volunteer. The more of us there are, the easier it is on all of us. The fundraising events are an absolute blast. People are always so appreciative of your help and the perks aren’t bad (most of the time there is music, beer, and food). For me, it’s a great way to enjoy extra time on the property and to know that I am helping to preserve something for future generations.”

For more information on how to volunteer, please email our Community Engagement Coordinator, Daniel, at

Visit Lula Lake on our Open Gate Days!
Spend your day in nature during our Open Gate Day!  With 8+ miles of trails, bluff views, and a 120-foot waterfall... there's always an adventure to be had! Make your reservation today by clicking upcoming dates below. Spaces are limited to maintain the tranquility of nature. We also have private guided hikes available. Click here to find out more! 
Saturday, June 25
Sunday,  June 26
Saturday, July 2
Sunday, July 3

Click here for more dates.
Thank you to all the racers — and their pups — for putting the FUN our 2nd annual Tails & Trails 5K summer fun run! 🐶🐾💙 We couldn’t have done this race without our wonderful presenting sponsors Nooga Paws, Play Wash Pint, and Play Wash Stay. Lula Lake is incredibly grateful for their support—they are the reason Lula Lake does what it does best: protect beautiful, biodiverse landscapes. Full results are listed on the UltraSignup race site, and we’ll see you at next year’s race!  For an album of photos from the event, click here to visit our Facebook page.
A word from our Tails & Trails 5K sponsors:
Tails & Trails started brewing in our mind several years ago, but we could never find the perfect venue. It wasn't until visiting Lula Lake with our dogs that we actually thought it could happen. Lula Lake provides the most amazing backdrop for any type of race but particularly shines for a pet event. With Rock Creek flowing through the race course, animals have an opportunity to cool off and the trail provides an amazing amount of shade. LLLT was amazing in providing the course, support through volunteering, and overall marketing.  

This is a truly unique event, that to our knowledge, is done no where else in the southeast. Our hope is that all participants get to experience the beauty of LLLT with their best fur family member. The event is welcome to all who share our passion for pets.
We can't wait for next year! 

Bob & Courtney Poore
  • Save a tree today! Every $10 donated here will help Lula Lake treat our Hemlock forests from Woolly Adelgid infestation.
  • Looking to make a reservation or wondering if we're open? ​​Our Visit Page has details on planning your next adventure.​
  • Interested in our conservation efforts? Click here for more details.
  • Have you visited our daily trails? Click here special trails open daily.
  • Want to volunteer at Lula Lake? Email us at to inquire about opportunities.
  • Did you know? YOU are our most critical person. You play an important role in guaranteeing the future of conservation and our preserved lands. Donations can be made online by clicking here or by mail at PO Box 395, Lookout Mountain, TN 37350.
Copyright © 2022 Lula Lake Land Trust, All rights reserved.

Our mailing address is:
PO Box 395, Lookout Mountain, TN 37350

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.