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Kanawha Valley Salt Industry

Historic Sites, Monuments, Landmarks, and Public Art ()


The current chemical plants situated along the Kanawha River in Kanawha county, West Virginia are a direct result of the early salt manufacturing and natural gas wells found along the river. Prior to the Civil War Kanawha county salt was known throughout the country. In 1835, there were as many as 40nsalt furnaces in operation along the Kanawha River producing 2 million bushels of salt per year.

Early salt manufacturer along the Kanawha River.
Malden, WV. WVU Libraries.


It is known that the salt springs were used by the Indians before the arrival of settlers along the Kanawha River. The first salt furnace for commercial manufacturing was set up in 1797 by Elisha Brooks. Others soon followed suit and soon furnaces were on both sides of the river. From Charleston east to Malden. In 1806 David and Joseph Ruffner succeeded in boring a well several hundred feet deep. This is said to be the first deep well west of the Alleghenies. The Ruffner brothers were also the first to use the abundant coal in the area as a cheap fuel to boil the salt.

At its peak in the mid 1840's the salt industry employed up to 3,000 people. Also during this time period local salt makers formed a "Trust" known as the Kanawha Salt Company in order to regulate the quality and price of salt and discourage competition. This was the first such trust in the United States. Soon the Kanawha Valley was the largest salt manufacturing in the United States. In 1845 Henry Howe in his Historical Collections of Virginia, described the mining process in this way, "The salt water is obtained by sinking a tight gum at the edge of the river down about twenty feet to the rock, which underlies the river and then boring into the rock. The brine flowed into a large hogshead, the excess natural gas and coal is used to boil off the water leaving the salt behind.

In 1861 a devastating flood in the onset of the Civil War caused a quick decline to salt manufacturing in the area. Dickinson Furnace at Malden was the only survivor. The industry continued its decline, however, at the beginning of World War I brought a demand for chemical products such as chlorine and caustic acid which are obtained from salt brine. Soon, chemical companies were building plants and using the natural brine that was used by Kanawha county's early salt producers.

Sources West Virginia Archives and History
  • Business and Economic Development
This location was created on 2015-04-15 by Cade Mills, Marshall University; Instructed by David J. Trowbridge.   It was last updated on 2016-06-18 by Cassaundra J. Vincent, Appalachian Studies Association .

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