The West Virginia. Cyclopedia

Kanawha Salines

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The oldest and most productive salt manufacturing region in West Virginia was known as the Kanawha Salines, an area that extend from a short distance above present-day Charleston, WV, twelve or fifteen miles along both sides of the Kanawha River, embracing the villages of Malden and Brownstown.

By 1835, there were 40 salt furnaces in operation in the Kanawha Salines, producing 2,000,000 bushels of salt annually. Just prior to 1870, nine salt furnaces in active operation in the Kanawha Salines, producing 160,000 bushels of salt per month, worth a market value of 50 cents per bushel, or $960,000 annually. Because of the economic stagnation of the 1870's, the salt business feel into decline, and in subsequent years, only one furnance was in operation. Despite its ultimate decline, the early salt industry spawned the development of the chemical industry in the Kanawha Valley, which began to develop in the early 1900's.

The Great Buffalo Lick

The salt springs of the area were known and ultilized by the Indians prior to the arrival of early settlers along the Kanawha in the late-1700's. Some authorities believe the salt spring, near present-day Malden, WV, is where [1], in 1755, Mary Draper Ingles] was forced to make salt by her Indians captors, while some of the Indians hunted for game.

The Kanawha salt lick, or "The Great Buffalo Lick" as it came to be called, was located at the edge of the Kanawha, 12 or 14 rods in extent, on the north side, a few hundred yards about the mouth of Campbells Creek. The lick was just in front of what was known as the "Thoroughfare Gap" through which bison, elk and other animals made their way in vast numbers to the lick. On the opposite side of the river from the lick, Daniel Boone lived for a while in about 1790-1791.

Early History

In 1797, Elisha Brooks set up the first furnace for the commercial manufacturing of salt in 1797, soon finding he was able to sell all the salt he could produce to the region's early settlers. Soon afterwards, others began making salt, and within a few years salt furnaces lined the banks of both sides of the river between present-day Malden and Charleston, WV.

As more people came to the area to buy salt a village soon developed, where lead, gun powder and other essentials of pioneering life could be purchased. Settlers came from great distances to secure salt, which they transported overland on horseback or by canoe of flatboat on the Kanawha River.

In 1806, David and Joseph Ruffner, brothers, set to work to manufacture salt on a commercial scale commensurate with the growing demands of the country. After much patient labor with the crudest of tools, they succeded in boring, tubing, and rigging a well several hundred feet deep, which yielded an abundant supply of strong brine. This is said to be the first deep well west of the Alleghenies and very probably the first in America. The Ruffner Brothers introduced another innovation by the use of coal as fuel for their furnaces and by the combination of an adequate supply of brine and cheap fuel were able to make more salt at a cheaper rate than was possible before that time.

The Strong Red Salt from the Kanawha Licks

The salt from the Kanawha Licks soon became known for its strong pungent taste, and its superior qualities for meat and butter. Many consumers of the salt began associating these qualities with its striking reddish color, and people soon came to call the salt "the strong red salt from the Kanawha licks."

The salt's red color actually was a result of the crude methods Elisha Brooks was using to manufacture salt. Brooks salt furnace consisted of two dozen small kettles, set in a double row, with a flue beneath, a chimney at one end, and a fire bed at the other. To obtain a supply of salt water, he sank two or three "gums," some eight to ten feet each in length, into the mire and quicksand of the salt lick, and dipped the brine with a bucket and swape as it oozed and seeped in through the sands below.

Brooks used no means to settle or purify the brine or salt, as the salt came from the gum, so it was boiled down to salt in the kettles, with whatever impurities or coloring matter it contained. As it issues from the earth, is holds some salt carbonate of iron in solution; when it is boiled, this iron becomes oxidized, and gives a reddish tint to the brine and salt. In this crude way, Brooks managed to produce about 150 pounds of salt a day, which he sold for 8 to 10 cents per pound.