After quite a long break, longer than I’d preferred if I hadn’t been away from my research, I’m happy to apologize for the delay and get back to writing weekly. For this week’s article, we have to go back to before Mason County, indeed, before the United States existed.
In the earliest oral histories of the Native Americans, our region was rich in natural resources, but one was prized more than all the others combined. Sure, our region was rich in flint, but that of Flint Ridge in central Ohio was considered better for trade. Yes, there was plenty of coal, and George Washington himself noted the “the hill which the Indians say is always a fire” in present-day West Columbia. But, in these early years, coal was abundant and exposed seams were still commonplace. There was even oil that leaked out of natural springs, but its value was unknown until the mid-1800s.
About 800 feet beneath our feet, trapped there millions of years ago as the ocean retreated from West Virginia and the mountains were built, there exists an extensive underground salt lake. In some places, this lake has been forced toward the surface, and salt springs provide nourishment to animal and man alike. It was these springs, particularly those above Charleston and near Newark, Ohio, that set the course of Native American trails and determined the success or failure of hunting and war expeditions. So special were these springs, the Shawnee of Lower Shawneetown in Kentucky knew the exact location of and frequented the ones in the Kanawha Valley.
As the young United States expanded west, frontiersmen “discovered” these salt springs, and enterprising businessmen realized that these could rid the new country of a continued reliance on salt imported from Britain. The first was Elisha Brooks in 1797, who leased the land from Joseph Ruffner. However, his salt furnace was a small operation that produced salt form the natural springs. In 1808, two of Ruffner’s sons, Joseph Jr. and David, opened the first commercial salt furnace with a well 59 feet deep, through which salt brine was pumped to the surface and evaporated to produce pure salt. They soon expanded their furnace with a well that was 410 feet deep and began shipping salt west on flatboats, and once others realized how extensive the salt deposits were, the industry exploded.
In 1808, the Ruffner furnace was the only one along the Kanawha River. By 1810, there were 16 furnaces, but these still weren’t enough to meet the new nation’s demands. As a result, when a new war with Britain broke out and salt imports stopped, the number of salt furnaces above Charleston nearly quadrupled to a staggering 52 furnaces along just 15 miles of the Kanawha River with a production of over 1,000,000 bushels of salt!
After the War of 1812, production was scaled back a bit now that they no longer needed to provide for the war effort, and the first trust was formed to control production and prices. Long before John D. Rockefeller even imagined Standard Oil, the Kanawha Trust Company controlled an entire industry and the key to the nation’s food supply.
By 1846, competition and production had been brought under control, and the 40 salt furnaces along the Kanawha River were producing over 3 million bushels of salt in a year. Almost all of it was being shipped to Cincinnati, the “meatpacking capital of the world.” But, shipping costs to Cincinnati were high, and some began to look for a new location.
Draw a straight line between Charleston and Newark, and it more or less crosses over the Bend Area. Banking on the fact that the two famous salt springs were connected, James Blunden, who had previously manufactured salt near the central Ohio salt springs, came to Pomeroy and began drilling in the vicinity of the current library. Unfortunately, his well never reached deep enough. Undeterred, Moses Michael, John Hall, and John McCulloch, all noted persons in our local history, hired two Kanawha Valley well-drillers, known only as Steele and Russell, to drill a well just below Ice Creek in West Columbia and to keep going until they hit salt brine, which they did at 700 feet.
It’s unlikely that they knew at the time, but this success marked the beginning of the end for the Kanawha Valley salt industry and the beginning of the most prosperous times known in the history of the Bend Area. We’ll pick up there next week.
Information from the West Virginia Encyclopedia, the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey, the writings of Mildred Chapman Gibbs, and Anna Lederer’s “19th Century Coal and Salt Drama of the Pomeroy Bend.”
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at email@example.com.