Appalachian Institute Profile: Salt & Chemicals

The Appalachian Mountains have many sources of saline waters, a boon to the pioneers penetrating the ranges in the early 19th century. Salt was crucial to the preservation of foods - witness salt pork - and salt obtained by boiling off saline waters in huge kettles proved a major part of the mountain economy. In southwestern Virginia, "Buffalo Lick" became "Saltville" in the late 18th century as local folks grew up producing salt for export beyond the immediate region via the Holston River. Saltworks in Clay County, Kentucky, supplied markets in Lexington and Louisville. (And control of the Clay County salt industry instigated the famous "war" between the White and Garrard families.)

In West Virginia, Native Americans would boil water from a salt spring along the Kanawha River. By 1797, a salt furnace in the Kanawha Valley at Campbell's Creek provided European-American pioneers with the means of curing butter and meat. In the early 19th century, drilling hundreds of feet into the valley had tapped salt brine, and soon there were 52 furnaces furled by coal in the "Kanawha Salines." The furnace operators united to form the Kanawha Salt Company which regulated quality and price, and discouraged foreign competition. A flood in 1861 and Civil War destruction reduced salt production to one furnace.

The valley revived as a chemical producer during World War I when German imports ceased. In 1914, a plant to produce chlorine and caustic acid from salt brine opened in South Charleston. From this beginning, a large chemical industry grew up in the Kanawha Valley. During World War II, an industry arose extracting salt from rock salt deposits in first Marshall and then also Tyler counties. (see WV Geological History)

In Pennsylvania's Conemaugh-Kiskiminetas Valley, one Mrs. Deemer boiling water from an area well in 1795-98 noticed salt crystals at the bottom of her kettle. Soon, wells were being drilled, and salt water was being pumped to the surface with spring poles.

By 1819 the "Great Conemaugh Salt Works" was comprised of twelve manufacturers. The primitive kettle that Mrs. Deemer has used was replaced by large iron pans, 8 inches deep, 20 feet long and 10 or 11 feet wide. Coal was mined nearby and used as fuel for the steam engines to both bore and pump.

In 1833 the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal carried four million pounds of salt out of the Valley. However, the 1830s proved the high point of Conemaugh-Kiskiminetas salt production. Production continued elsewhere in western Pennsylvania, and salt wells contaminated by oil helped turn attention to the possibilities of petroleum production from deep wells.

The resources needed to keep saltworks producing in the 19th century had a deleterious effect on the mountain environment, according to historian Donald Edward Davis.

Of greatest consequence to the local environment were the large amounts of coal and timber needed to fuel the saltworks' continuously burning fires. The mining of coal seams precipitated acid runoff in mountain streams and the cutting of cordwood aided in the further clearing of mountain woodlands, intensifying soil erosion and the siltation of creeks and rivers. Where There Are Mountains, An Environmental History of the Southern Appalachians p. 155.

In the latter part of the 20th century, the concentrations of chemical plants along the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers in West Virginia led to health concerns. In 1985, impressed by the Bhopal disaster at a Union Carbide plant in India and by chemical releases at the Union Carbide plant at Institute, chemical firms and valley residents set up the National Institute for Chemical Studies in order to help "communities manage safety, health and environmental risks associated with the manufacture, storage, transportation and disposal of chemicals." The NICS did good work, but in a sense, dangers of pollution were decreasing in any case as chemical concerns increasingly located manufacturing overseas. In 1980 in the Kanawha Valley, for instance, chemical corporations employed some 12,500 workers. By 2003, the number of chemical industry employees had shrunk to 3,600. Quality jobs from chemicals were going the way of quality jobs from steel or coal.