CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) – West Virginia is well known for its many coal mining towns and coal industry. However, there is another industry that helped put the Mountain State on the map.
The salt industry was the first major industry to be developed in West Virginia. Before the industry began to take hold in the Mountain State, salt was considered a “scarce domestic commodity” and had to be imported to the newly-formed United States, according to the West Virginia Encyclopedia.
However, long before European settlers came to what would become West Virginia, Native Americans followed buffalo and deer through the area, finding the salt licks the animals frequented in what is now Malden, West Virginia. These salt licks would become known as the Great Buffalo Lick or Kanawha Licks. The Native Americans drew brine from these salt licks to turn into salt in smaller quantities.
Where did the salt supply come from?
Historians say these salt licks were formed due to an ancient ocean that lies under the state, according to WV.gov. The Iapetus Ocean is a prehistoric sea that first existed over 600 million years ago. By approximately 420 million years ago, the ocean had disappeared as ancient continents moved and combined to create new, larger continents as Pangea began to form.
Although the Iapetus Ocean’s waters disappeared, salt from its waters became trapped beneath the earth, specifically, under what are now the Appalachian Mountains and its foothills.
Rise of the WV salt industry
Salt furnaces in the Mountain State date all the way back to the close of the 18th century. State historians credit Elisha Brooks with building the Kanawha Valley’s first salt furnace at the mouth of Campbells Creek in 1797, according to the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey.
According to the Kanawha Salines Foundation, when Brooks’ furnace first began commercial production, it produced approximately 150 bushels of salt each day. The companies used shallow wells to reach the water, and used the furnace system to evaporate the brine until they were left with only the crystalized salt that was then packaged and shipped throughout the states.
Within the next two decades, more salt furnaces would begin popping up along the Kanawha Valley and West Virginia. After Brooks established his furnace, the Ruffner brothers, Joseph and David, built another commercial furnace in the Kanawha Salines area in 1808. John Haymond and Benjamin Wilson established their own furnace along the Little Kanawha River near Bulltown in Braxton County in 1809. John George Jackson establishing his company along the West Fork near Clarksburg in 1812, according to the West Virginia Encyclopedia.
Salt production increased with demand during the War of 1812. By 1815, there were 52 furnaces operating throughout the Kanawha Salines. By 1846, when the industry reached its peak, the furnaces were producing more than 3.2 million bushels of salt each year.
The salt industry also contributed to the growth of West Virginia’s coal industry as furnaces began switching to coal power. According to the WV Geological and Economic Survey, David Ruffner was the first furnace owner to experiment with the use of coal to power his furnaces instead of wood, and other owners soon followed his lead.
Salt from the Kanawha County area became well known for its red color created by iron impurities, which turned the clear brine red when it was heated. The Kanawha Salines Foundation says the salt was dubbed the “Red Salt from Kanawha” and was known for having a “strong, pungent taste.” The salt was considered good for curing butter and meats.
Why did the salt industry decline?
While the salt industry in Kanawha County had a booming run, two factors in the 1860s brought the industry to a steep decline. First, the Civil War began in April of 1861, and then that September, the Kanawha River’s watershed saw one of its worst floods in recorded history. Both the war and the flooding had a devastating impact on the Kanawha Salines.
Even with the decline of the Kanawha Salines in the 1860s, West Virginia’s salt industry was not over. In the 1850s, another brine field was discovered by along the Ohio River in Mason County. With this new discovery, salt furnaces were built in Hartford and Mason, West Virginia and Pomeroy, Ohio, according to the West Virginia Encyclopedia. The salt licks in Mason County also contributed to the decline of the Kanawha Salines by creating more competition as the area was considered closer to the salt markets.
The salt manufacturing processes along the Ohio Valley were also a good fit for that area’s primary industry of the time – coal mining. Like the Kanawha Salines, the salt manufacturers were able to burn the coal mines’ fine coal product, which would have been discarded otherwise. The product, known as “slack,” gives open fires a longer burning experience, according to Capper Trading.
Despite its success, a number of outside factors such as advances in meat packing, the growth of the national railroad and salt licks being discovered in other parts of the country, also took a toll on the salt furnaces in the Kanawha and Ohio valleys. While some of the furnaces managed to stay afloat until the middle of the 1900’s the only surviving brine salt manufacturer to this day is the J.Q. Dickenson Salt-Works in Malden, West Virginia. The company still uses the same by-hand processes used seven generations ago to manufacture their salt.