This summer, in the prestigious journal “Southeastern Archaeology,” two Radford University professors published an article about the industrial archeology of regional salt making furnaces.
Of the authors, professor C. Clifford (Cliff) Boyd, Jr., is an anthropologist/archeologist. The now-retired Robert C. (Bob) Whisonant is a geologist. Their article is titled “Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century salt production in Saltville, Virginia.”
In their article, they tell that a significant purpose of industrial archeology is to interpret (and hopefully preserve) surviving remains that illustrate the technology of the Industrial Revolution (that began about 1750 AD in England).
The interpretation of such remains elucidates the social and economic impacts that industrialization had on people involved as workers, supervisors and owners, in early factories, chemical plants and mills.
Industrial archeology also sheds light on how industrialization transformed the preindustrial agricultural class and status systems, and, in Saltville, assists the study of industrial slavery.
Natural, inland salt water is typically called brine. Saltville features brine springs and brine ponds because of its geology.
During the Mississippian period of geology, dating from roughly 350 million years ago, layers of shale and limestone, along with solid salt (salt flats) left by evaporation, formed bedded deposits. About 100 million years later, when part of Africa collided with North America, in an event called the Appalachian orogeny, the Appalachian mountains were created by uplift during which these neatly layered, bedded deposits were overturned and shifted hundreds of miles.
At Saltville, these east-coast-wide geologic events left an extensive salt bearing layer in the so-called Maccrady stratum lying about 100 meters below the Saltville Valley.
Saltville has long been known as a source of ice-age fossils. Its readily available natural brine attracted large herbivores such as mammoths and mastodons, who needed the sodium salt provided to balance the potassium coming from their plant-based diets. In turn, these herbivores attracted American Indian hunters, explaining why so many Indian trails intersected at Saltville. Readers may be familiar with today’s blocks of salt (called salt licks) that are routinely set out for beef and dairy cows.
Arthur Campbell began commercial salt production in Saltville towards the end of the eighteenth century and in 1782 sent Thomas Jefferson a fossilized Saltville mastodon tooth. Jefferson in turn sent the tooth on to the famous paleontologist Georges Cuvier in Paris. Cuvier had earlier given the mastodon its name, because of the breast-shaped protuberances on its teeth.
To make transportable commercial salt required boiling brine to drive off its water until its salt concentration increased sufficiently that solid salt crystals formed and could be strained out, left to dry, and bagged. Wood burning provided the heat to boil the brine. Early brine boiling was done over small fires in small metal kettles. Later it was accomplished using large furnaces heating rows of large metal kettles.
Hampered by lack of adequate transportation, Saltville salt production grew only slowly during the first half of the nineteenth century. Long-distance overland shipment via horse-and-wagon was expensive, and the shallow North Fork of the Holston River allowed salt transport to Kingsport in low-draft, one-way purpose-built barges only when springtime rains raised the river’s water level.
This transportation situation changed dramatically in 1854 with the opening of the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad, linking Lynchburg in central Virginia to Bristol on the Virginia-Tennessee state line. A ten-mile spur line to Saltville was completed in 1856. Railroad access instantly opened vast markets and catapulted Saltville into national prominence.
By the time of the Civil War, Southerners annually consumed about 450 million pounds of salt, more than any other nation in the world. Salt’s single most important use was to preserve meat and fish. Before the development of refrigeration, salt was irreplaceable, with its use peaking in the fall when animals were slaughtered in preparation for the coming winter.
The Northern blockade of the Confederacy initiated in 1861 by Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan” largely eliminated southern salt-making by solar evaporation along its Atlantic and Gulf coasts and in the lower Mississippi River. The important West Virginia Kanawha salt works were lost to the Confederacy after the September 1861 Battle of Carnifax, and the Confederate salt works in Clay County in eastern Kentucky were destroyed in October 1862. These military actions left the Confederacy increasingly reliant on Saltville.
The Radford professors’ study examined two salt furnaces. The older one, located on today’s municipal Saltville golf course, was in operation in the late eighteenth century when commercial salt production was beginning. It had predominantly stone walls between which 35-gallon iron kettles were placed on supports, with wood fires directly underneath them to boil the brine.
The later furnace they examined was at the west end of Saltville, at the location of today’s salt park. It dated from the intense period of salt making during the Civil War. This later furnace had well-defined brick walls on stone foundations, with its hot combustion gases supporting rows of 100-gallon iron kettles over the furnace flue. This furnace was built right next to the railroad spur for ease of transportation and represented a much more sophisticated and larger-scale operation than the earlier furnace.
Historians have noted that salt makers “employed slaves in all phases of the manufacturing process and in all subsidiary activities necessary to support a salt furnace.” History does not record definite head counts, but possibly hundreds of slaves were in use in Saltville during the Civil War.
The authors conclude their study: “Many of these early technological and industrial changes are not physically observable except through archaeological excavation, which can significantly link historic documentation to the actual sites and features of past industry and thereby help to preserve this important aspect of American history.”
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. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.