Everyone knows West Virginia for its coal production, but did you know that at one time, salt production dominated our region? Brine salt was pumped from deep underground into a salt furnace, where it was heated and purified to remove excess water and chemicals.
The first successful salt production on our side of the Big Bend was at West Columbia in 1849; however, a much larger and more productive furnace was soon built in Hartford. In 1854, William Harpold came from Racine and bought a large chunk of land in Hartford, just below Sliding Hill Creek. On this land, he constructed a salt furnace, saw mill, boat yard, and multiple homes for his workers. He named his new town and salt furnace Valley City. By 1857, this furnace was up on running, though it was not officially incorporated until 1869. At that time, there were 17 stockholders, and William Harpold was the majority owner. Soon after this, William passed away and left the company to his son, Elijah.
Elijah Harpold did his best to run the company, but he was also captain of the Steamer Robin, so he was frequently absent. By 1878, the furnace had been closed multiple times for repairs, and Harpold decided that it was in the best interests of the company to reorganize. This time, the company was known as the Aetna Coal and Salt Company. They continued operating for a short time, but more trouble found the salt furnace, and they were forced to sell out. This time, the company was bought by G.Y. Roots and Albert E. Smith, partners from Cincinnati.
Under the new leadership, the name was changed to the Liverpool Salt & Coal Company. This is the name that most people remember. It seems that no owner could avoid disaster striking this salt furnace. Just a few years after their purchase, the 1884 flood destroyed the Ohio Valley. At Liverpool, they lost an entire barge of salt and were unable to operate for nearly a year.
By 1888, Roots sold his shares to Smith, and the Smith family owned the entire operation. He immediately began making improvements, and in 1890, the local papers took notice, mentioning that “Liverpool Salt and Coal Co. have made quite an improvement on their salt house.” This trend continued, and the salt furnace became one of the most profitable in the entire Bend Area. When the other furnaces formed a Salt Trust to stay alive, Liverpool was one of the few furnaces to continue on their own. They also stayed at the leading edge of innovation. Liverpool was one of the first to use calcium chloride to settle dust on nearby roads. This chemical is still used for this purpose, as well as de-icing roadways.
In 1909, disaster struck Liverpool once again. This time, a boiler explosion nearly leveled the entire furnace and killed two men. It would be months before the furnace would reopen.
Upon A.E. Smith’s death, the furnace was given to his sons. Erwyn Smith emerged as the leader and ran most of the company’s business; however, he died only 7 years after his father. Next, the company went to his son, Donald Albert Smith. He ran the company until his death in 1955, at which point his wife became the president of the company, and his son, Donald E. Smith, took over as manager. After watching the other salt furnaces slowly close their doors, Liverpool Furnace finally put out its fires in 1963. It was the last of the Bend Area salt furnaces to close.
Information from Mildred Gibbs’ “Hartford City, 1853-1922.”
Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society. More information on the organization found on Facebook at Mason County Historic Preservation. The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be Tuesday, Aug. 15, at 6:30 p.m., with location near Leon to be determined.