Calcium carbide was once manufactured at Ivanhoe in Wythe County

Jim Glanville

This columnist spoke in April to an audience of 47 people about local coal mining history at the Blacksburg Museum and Cultural Center.


An exhibit about local coal mining history had been running since January at the museum and was about to close. The closing prompted the talk.

The talk went well, and was well received, but I gave a totally inadequate answer to an after talk question as to whether or not calcium carbide (CaC2) was once manufactured at Ivanhoe on the New River in Wythe County. It was, but being unsure of that answer at the time, I waffled.

In fact, calcium carbide was manufactured at its Ivanhoe plant from 1917 until 1966 by the Union Carbide Corporation.

The plant superintendent wrote a first hand account of the manufacturing process in 1924. It is reprinted as an appendix in Randal L. Hall’s book “Mountains on the Market: Industry, the Environment, and the South” (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012).

The plant manufactured calcium carbide by reacting lime (CaO) and coke (mostly carbon or C) together in an electric furnace to 3400°F, with the molten calcium carbide product being tapped off when the reaction was complete.

The molten calcium carbide produced was poured into “chill cars” where it cooled and solidified in 3000 lb. lots. After cooling, the calcium carbide was crushed to various sizes and packaged in metal cans (also manufactured at the Ivanhoe plant).

The manufacturing process can be represented by the chemical equation: CaO + 3 C = CaC2 + CO.

Calcium carbide was important in coal mining because of the light produced by the flame of a carbide lamp. More specifically, the bright flame comes from the burning of acetylene gas generated by the reaction between calcium carbide and water.

The production of acetylene gas (C2H2) can be represented by the chemical equation: CaC2 + 2 H2O = Ca(OH)2 + C2H2.

Carbide lamps consist of four components: a calcium carbide reservoir, a water reservoir, a regulator to control the drip of water onto the calcium carbide at a suitable rate, and a flame nozzle in the center of a light reflector to burn the acetylene gas. Several carbide lamps were on display at the museum’s coal mining exhibit.

The history of the use of calcium carbide for lighting is interesting and instructive. It involves the very earliest days of motoring and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Before 1904, automobile headlamps were basically lanterns that provided very little illumination for night driving. Then it was realized that acetylene-burning lamps were far brighter than lanterns. This realization led to the development of the Prest-O-Lite headlight, an acetylene-burning lamp that was the first truly effective headlight.

Prest-O-Lite equipped automobiles carried a calcium carbide acetylene generator, an acetylene storage tank, and hoses to transport the gas to the headlamps.

Working electric lights for automobiles (as used in modern cars) were not introduced for several more years, with Cadillac generally being credited with this development in 1912.

Prest-O-Lite made great fortunes for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway founders Carl Fisher and James Allison. Both were established businessmen when they founded Prest-O-Lite (originally named the Concentrated Acetylene Company). Fisher owned one of the first automobile dealerships in the country, and Allison was president of a manufacturing company selling watches and fountain pens.

Despite the ending of the automobile lamp market for calcium carbide after 1912, demand for the substance for mining lamps and as a chemical intermediate continued strongly.

In 1917 Prest-O-Lite joined with National Carbon Co., Union Carbide Co., the Electro Metallurgical Co., and Linde Air Products Co. to form Union Carbide and Carbon Corp. Union Carbide remains a major chemical company into the 21st-century.

There were excellent economic reasons to build a calcium carbide plant at Ivanhoe on the New River in 1917. Lime and coke were readily and cheaply available in southwest Virginia. Cheap electricity for the furnaces was available from the Buck and Byllesby dams that had been built in 1912 on the New River along the boundary of Carroll and Wythe counties.

These dams continue to generate electricity for Appalachian Power Company even today.

Chemical compounds made using electricity are called electrochemicals. Chlorine is an electrochemical, which was once made at Saltville in Smyth County and is currently in the news because of its use as a war gas in Syria. Buffalo, New York, became an electrochemical center because of the electricity available from the Niagara dams.

After the Ivanhoe calcium carbide plant closed in 1966, the economic life of the community was battered.

In subsequent years Ivanhoe has significantly recovered. The New River Trail State Park from Pulaski to Galax that was begun in 1987 has grown to be a 58-mile long rails-to-trails park, mostly following the New River. The park brings hikers, bikers, and fishermen to Ivanhoe, which is near the midpoint of the trail.

Ivanhoe Civic Association events scheduled for later this year include a truck pull in May, a horse show in June, and July 4th and Christmas parades.

Ivanhoe remains a good place to live, although most of its working residents now travel elsewhere to earn their livings.

Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia.

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