President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in 1940, “We must be the great arsenal of democracy” in a speech calling for materiel support for Great Britain and China in their war against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. He knew what all commanders know. You can have as many top-notch soldiers as you like, but if you don’t have enough food, enough supplies, enough weapons for those soldiers, you’ve lost the war. This simple fact played a major role in our local economy, far as we are from Pittsburgh and Dearborn.
During the Civil War, what were the three most important army rations? Coffee, hardtack (made from flour, water, and salt), and salt pork. Coffee came from Latin America, the flour for the hardtack came from the breadbasket regions of the Midwest and western New York, and the pork came from Cincinnati, then nicknamed “Porkopolis,” the pork capital of the world. But where did they get the salt?
Here! Almost all of the curing salt used in Cincinnati came from the Kanawha Salines and Bend Area because we were the closest source. There were other salt operations in the Northeast, Michigan, and Kansas, but getting salt from those furnaces to Cincinnati wasn’t cheap. We, on the other hand, are just a quick trip upriver. So important was our salt to the war effort that three campaigns were fought to control it.
None of the campaigns made it into the Bend, but the third, Morgan’s Raid of 1863, came the closest. His raid through Indiana and Ohio was a distraction for the Confederate movement on Gettysburg, and as part of it all, he planned to cross at Eight Mile Island and tear through the Bend. He was stopped there, and again at Pomeroy, and again at Buffington Island, three times within a river’s length of crossing into the Bend Area.
After the Civil War, it was West Virginia coal that fired the battleships at Manila and Santiago, sent the Great White Fleet around the world, and powered the U.S. Navy through World War I. From our coalfields to the C&O piers at Newport News, our coal supported a growing world power.
Then, during the First World War, what was to become one of our largest industries moved to Mason County. After being nearly wiped out by the 1913 flood, the Marietta Manufacturing Company sought high ground in our Heights neighborhood to build their “Made Mechanically Correct” barges, boats, and ships. They moved here in 1915 and launched their first towboat in 1921 for the federal government’s Inland Waterways Corporation, the first of over 800 ships built and launched right here in Point Pleasant.
Among those 800 were 93 oceangoing ships, built and launched almost 1,800 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Three coast guard cutters in 1934; four net tenders, sixteen mine planters, and fifty-three landing tugs during World War II; ten landing craft and two berthing/messing craft in the 1950s; two Dept. of Commerce survey ships in 1963; and three U.S. Navy survey ships in 1964/65. Combined with boats and barges for the IWC and Corp of Engineers, nearly 1/5th of the vessels built at Marietta were government vessels, and many were part of war efforts.
We were home to the WV Ordnance Works during World War II, one of the largest and busiest ordnance works in the eastern half of the country. A dozen complete TNT production lines, 104 “igloo” munitions bunkers, and its own rail lines, dock, water and electric lines, and fire department employing 3,500 people and nearly 9,000 acres… And it was all built in less than seven months, a national record at the time.
And finally, during Vietnam and the Cold War, we were part of the nation’s chemical core. From Parkersburg to Charleston, up and down the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers, chemical plants produced the plastics, foams, and coatings (and supposedly, weapons) needed by the Army and federal government at large.
Those days are gone though, and since the 1970s, industry in the Ohio Valley has been declining steadily. The Marietta Shipyard is gone, the coal mines in this area have closed, one of our two power plants, Philip Sporn Plant, has been closed for a few years now and is currently being demolished. According to a January article in the Charleston Gazette-Mail concerning coal-fired power plants in West Virginia, locally, Mountaineer is reportedly (currently) estimated to reach the end of its working life in 2040. And, the chemical plants, though still open and busy, are not what they once were.
Tourism is the name of the game now, and I’ll write a bit about that next week.
Information from the writings of Mildred Gibbs, “History of the Marietta Manufacturing Company” by Capt. Stone and Jack Fowler, and various general industrial histories.
Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical & Preservation Society and assistant director of Main Street Point Pleasant, reach him at [email protected]