As with most things, when the Industrial Revolution came to Mason County, it was about 50 years behind the times. The changes began in England in the 1750s with the expansion of water and steam power and switch from hand production to machines, spreading throughout the English colonies around the world.
Industry arrived in America just as our nation came into its own, with the first major tests carried out just a few years after the Treaty of Paris. In 1785, construction started on the country’s first cotton mill in Massachusetts, and by the mid-1790s, Samuel Slater had virtually perfected the early factory mill system.
In 1787, James Rumsey tested the world’s first successful steamboat at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, 16 years before Robert Fulton tested his steamboat on the Seine.
That same year, 1787, Elisha Brooks opened the first salt furnace in the Kanawha Salines. He was followed by the Ruffner Brothers in 1808, and by 1815, there were 52 salt furnaces in the ten mile stretch between Kanawha City and Belle.
Yet, despite mill industrialization happening at the same time as the settling of Point Pleasant… Despite the acknowledged value of Rumsey’s steamboat to Ohio River trade, and President Washington’s own interest in the project, and the first steamboat on the Ohio being tested as early as 1811… Despite the Kanawha Salines being only 50 miles upriver and known to every settler that followed the Kanawha River to Point Pleasant…
It wasn’t until 1830 that Mason County had anything more than old-fashioned, inefficient, outdated, and low-quality grain mills. That year, according to Hardesty, a steam-powered grist mill was built on Thirteen Mile Creek, soon followed by one in Point Pleasant in 1832, Michael Zirkle’s on Broad Run in 1836, and Charles Beale’s in Gallipolis Ferry around 1837 or 1838. Most of these were accompanied by a sawmill that shared the steam engine when not grinding grain.
But even so, these industries were minimal and served only the local farms and plantations. While Mason County was busying itself with grain and lumber, Meigs County was mining coal at Pomeroy, building boats at Racine and Antiquity, producing salt from springs on Leading Creek, and operating dozens of gristmills and sawmills.
Leading citizens in Mason County saw this and were rightfully ashamed, knowing as they did that our underground resources equaled, if not exceeded, those across the river and were often less prone to flooding. Thus in 1849, the first successful salt well in the Bend Area was sunk to a depth of 700 feet in West Columbia, ushering in a new industrial age.
Within 20 years, by 1869, there were more than two dozen salt furnaces in the Bend, each with its own sawmill, cooperage (barrel factory), blacksmith, coal mine, wharf, and often, steamboat and barges. These were soon joined by other industries: Newton’s Bromine Works in Hartford, Stieren’s Bromine Works and Young’s Boatyard in Mason, Clifton Iron & Nail, independent Camden Coal Mines below West Columbia, and the Kanawha Lumber & Furniture Company in Point Pleasant.
So much opportunity attracted labor from around the world, from the old salt fields of the Kanawha Valley to the coal regions of Germany and Wales, and in those twenty years, the population of Mason County more than doubled from 7,500 in 1850 to 15,900 in 1870.
That in and of itself drove further expansion, as all of the businesses moved in to support the industrial workforce. Grocers, butchers, tailors, jewelers, dry goods, doctors, lawyers, newspapers… At one time even a town like West Columbia had multiple doctors, a hotel, and a newspaper. All of this because of an Industrial Revolution that began an ocean away, late as it was in Mason County.
Information from the writings of Hardesty & Gibbs, and the Weekly Register.
Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical & Preservation Society and assistant director of Main Street Point Pleasant, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.