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Antebellum Industry

Industry developed more slowly west of the Blue Ridge Mountains than in eastern Virginia, although there are several examples of early western Virginian entrepreneurship. At the end of the Revolutionary War, most of the industry located in what is now West Virginia operated in the Eastern Panhandle region, such as the iron furnace at The Bloomery in present-day Jefferson County, possibly as early as 1742. With the elimination of Native American threats and the improvement of transportation, industry soon spread across the mountains. By the end of the eighteenth century, a pottery factory and iron furnaces had been established near Morgantown, Peter Tarr had built an iron furnace on King's Creek in present-day Hancock County, and glass plants were built in the northwestern region of the state.

Meanwhile, convinced of the advantages of water for powering industry, George Washington selected Harpers Ferry as a site for one of the two national armories. In 1797, the government established an armory and arsenal at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, which continued to produce weapons until the outbreak of the Civil War.

The first major regionwide industry was salt. The brine obtained from wells in the Kanawha Valley had long been used by Native Americans and pioneers, but never manufactured for profit. In 1797, Elisha Brooks used three hollowed sycamore trees as shafts and operated a salt works at the mouth of Campbell's Creek, capable of producing 150 pounds of salt daily. In 1807, David and Joseph Ruffner established a salt manufacturing works in the area of present-day Belle which produced 25 to 30 bushels daily. By 1810, the Kanawha Valley led the nation in the production of salt. Furthermore, the success at Kanawha Salines encouraged other salt works in western Virginia, including Bulltown (Braxton County) and on the West Fork River near Clarksburg, established by John Haymond and John George Jackson, respectively.

During the War of 1812 with England, the Kanawha Valley industry expanded, filling the void created by the absence of salt previously acquuired from England. In 1817, the numerous competitors in the valley joined forces to form the Kanawha Salt Company, the first business trust in the country. That same year, coal was discovered in the Kanawha Valley, and the salt works gradually shifted from wood to the use of coal as a fuel.

The salt industry continued to be an economic force in the Kanawha Valley until 1850, by which time the center of the meat packing industry had moved from Cincinnati to Chicago, taking salt manufacturing westward as well. By 1865, floods and the Civil War had destroyed all but one salt furnace in the valley.

The first major industrial city to develop in western Virginia was Wheeling. Already known for its glass plants which had been in business as early as 1820, Wheeling flourished on the thriving economy of the iron industry. In 1832, the Wheeling Iron Works established a large mill, producing up to 5,000 pounds of nails daily. By 1835, Wheeling had four iron foundries and four steam engine businesses. In 1849, Charles Ellet, Jr. extended the National Road across the Ohio River with a suspension bridge that was the longest single-span structure of that style in the world. Wheeling was viewed as a gateway to the west. The arrival of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1853 led to a dramatic increase in businesses and population. On the eve of the Civil War, Wheeling was second in the entire state only to Richmond in population.

Antebellum Studies

West Virginia History Center

West Virginia Archives and History