Early Industry in Kanawha County
Historical Collections of Virginia (1845)
Henry Howe
pp. 343-47

Kanawha was formed in 1789, from Greenbrier and Montgomery: it is about 60 miles long, with a mean breadth of 40 miles. Gauley River unites with New River, and forms the Great Kanawha upon the eastern border of the county. The Kanawha then flows through the county in a NW. direction, receiving in its passage through the county, Elk, Pocatalico, and Coal Rivers. The surface of the county is much broken. It is famous for its mineral treasures, salt, coal, &c. Pop., in 1840, whites 10,910, slaves 2,560, free colored 97; total, 13,567.

The first settlement in what is now Kanawha county, was made about twenty miles above Charleston, at Kelly's creek, by a man after whom that creek was named. One of the first settlers was Lewis Tachet, concerning whom, and the marauding parties of Indians that harassed the early settlers, there are many traditions in the Kanawha valley. He erected a fort at the mouth of Cole River, which was destroyed by a party of Indians from the towns on the Scioto, in 1788, when his family were made prisoners. In 1798 there was a fort built immediately above the mouth of Elk, on the site of Charleston. Among the earliest settlers were also the Morrisses from Culpeper, whose descendants, mostly of the first respectability, now form perhaps nearly a tenth of the population of the county. Joseph Carroll, the Clendenins, John Young, William Droddy, Andrew Donnally, Michael See, and John Jones, were also very early settlers. For many years they subsisted chiefly on buffalo, bear, elk, deer, and raccoon meat, and Indian corn broken in stone mortars. In the Indian dialect, Kanawha signifies "river of the woods." Pocatalico, a considerable tributary of that stream, signifies 'plenty of fat doe.'"

Charleston, the seat of justice for the county, is 308 miles W. of Richmond, and 46 miles E. of the Ohio River. It is a neat and flourishing village on the north bank of the Kanawha. Charleston was named after Charles Clendenin, an early settler, and an owner of the soil forming its site. The first house of worship was built by the Methodists, the second by the Presbyterians, in 1830, and the third by the Episcopalians, in 1835. There are in the place, 11 dry-goods and 6 grocery stores, 2 saw and grist mills, a newspaper printing-office, a branch of the Bank of Virginia, and a population of about 1,500. The district court of the United States is held at this place twice a year. Within the present century Charleston has arisen from the wilderness. Where, within the memory of man, a few scattered log-huts once arrested the traveller's eye, he now sees commodious and, in some instances, elegant buildings, the abodes of comfort and refinement. The Kanawha is here a beautiful sheet of water, more than 300 yards wide, and is navigated by steamboats. The state turnpike, the principal thoroughfare from Richmond to Guyandotte on the Ohio, passes through the town. Fine sandstone and bituminous coal abound in the vicinity.

Terra Salis, or Kanawha Salines, is a flourishing town about 6 miles above Charleston, containing 4 dry-goods and 2 grocery stores, an extensive iron-foundry, 1 Episcopal, 1 Presbyterian, and 1 Methodist church, and a population of about 800.

The Kanawha salt-works commence on the river, near Charleston, and extend on both sides for about 15 miles, giving employment, directly and indirectly, to about 3,000 persons. The view annexed was taken opposite the residence of Col. Reynolds, 6 or 8 miles above Charleston, and gives and idea of the character of the scenery in which the salt-works are situated. The description below (written several years since) is from the pen of a gentleman, now occupying a prominent office in the government of the state.

It is nearly 20 miles below the falls before the Kanawha valley widens into something like a plain, and opens its beautiful vista to the eye. The mountains which enclose it on either side become gradually depressed into hills; and, for the first time, the dense, dark volumes of smoke which ascend from the salt-furnaces, announce the busy and bustling scene which enlivens the highway to the village of Charleston. What a scene of animation, indeed, contrasted with the deep solitudes from which the traveller has but just emerged. Here he is feasted with a continued succession of green meadows and cultivated fields, teeming with flocks and herds, and adorned by commodious and even elegant mansions. The chimneys of the salt manufactories pour forth, at short intervals of space, their curling masses of black vapor, while swarms of laborers, and others connected with these establishments, are continually passing to and fro, present a pleasing coup d'aeil of incessant activity and industry. Nature, indeed, seems to have been prodigal in her bounties to this interesting region. The contiguous forests having been almost stripped to supply fuel to the salt-furnaces; the precious mineral so necessary to human comfort, must have remained for ever useless but for the discovery of inexhaustible beds of coal, so convenient of access as to make the cost of procuring it scarcely worth considering. Sometimes, by suitable platforms and inclined culverts, it is thrown from the mountain-side immediately to the door of the manufactory, and when more remote from the place of consumption, it is transported with equal ease, in wagons or cars, over rail-roads constructed for the purpose.

The whole product of the salt district is estimated at 1,200,000 bushels annually; and this product must continue to swell with the increasing demand, and with the employment of additional capital. It is a curious fact, and worthy of philosophical inquiry, that while the salt water is obtained by boring at a depth of from 3 to 500 feet below the bed of the Kanawha, it invariably rises to a level with the river. When the latter is swollen by rains, or the redundant waters of its tributaries, the saline fluid, enclosed in suitable gums on the shore, ascends like the mercury in its tube, and only falls when the river is restored to its wonted channel. How this mysterious correspondence is produced, is a problem which remains to be solved. Theories and speculation I have heard on the subject, but none seem to me to be precisely consonant with the principles of science."

The discovery of salt water in this region was led to by a large buffalo-lick on the NE. side of the river, 5 miles above Charleston. In this lick the first salt-well was sunk, in 1809.

Several vestiges remain on the Kanawha, which show that the Indians were acquainted with and made use of the salt water. Remains of rude pottery are found in abundance in the neighborhood, respecting which there is but little doubt that they are the remains of vessels used by them for the evaporation of the salt water. That the neighborhood of the Big Lick was their favorite resort, is evinced by the traces of their idle hours to be found upon the neighboring rocks. A short distance below the Big Lick was, some years since, a rock called the pictured or calico rock, on which the natives had sculptured many rude figures of animals, birds, &c. This rock was finally destroyed to make furnace chimneys. Another similar sculptured rock is, or was lately, on the sw. side of the river, upon the summit of the nearest hill. The article annexed, originally published in the Lexington Gazette in 1843, above the signature of H. R., describes a curiosity peculiarly interesting to the scientific, and promising to have a wonderful influence upon the prosperity of this region.

THE GAS WELLS OF KANAWHA - These wonderful wells have been so lately discovered, that as yet only a brief and imperfect notice of them has appeared in the newspapers. But they are a phenomenon so very curious and interesting, that a more complete description will doubtless be acceptable to the public.

They are, in fact, a new thing under the sun; for in all the history of the world, it does not appear that a fountain of strong brine was ever before known to be mingled with a fountain of inflammable gas, sufficient to pump it out in a constant stream, and then, by its combustion to evaporate the whole into salt of the best quality.

We shall introduce our account of these wells by some remarks on the geological structure of the country at the Kanawha salt-works, and on the manner in which the salt water is obtained.

The country is mountainous, and the low grounds along the river are altogether alluvial, the whole space, of about a mile in width, having been at some time the bed of the river. The rocks are chiefly sandstone of various qualities, lying in beds, or strata, from two inches to several feet in thickness. These strata are nearly horizontal, but dipping a little, as in other parts of the country, towards the NW. At the salt-works they have somehow been heaved up into a swell above the line of general direction, so as to raise the deep strata nigher to the surface, and thus to bring those in which the salt water is found within striking-distance.

Among the sand-rocks are found layers of slate and coal; this latter being also, by the same upheaving, made more conveniently accessible than in most other parts of the country.

The salt water is obtained by sinking a tight curb, or gum, at the edge of the river, down about twenty feet, to the rock which underlies the river, and then boring into the rock. At first the borings did not exceed two hundred feet in depth, but the upper strata of water being exhausted, the wells were gradually deepened, the water of the lower strata being generally stronger than the upper had ever been. Until last year, (1842,) none of the wells exceeded six or seven hundred feet in depth. Mr. Tompkins, an enterprising salt-maker, was the first to extend his borings to a thousand feet, or more. His experiment was attended with a most unexpected result. He had somewhat exceeded a thousand feet, when he struck a crevice in the rock, and forth gushed a powerful stream of mingled gas and salt water. Generally, the salt water in the wells was obtained in rock merely porous, and rose by hydrostatic pressure to the level of the river. To obtain the strong water of the lower strata, unmixed with the weak water above, it is the practice to insert a copper tube into the hole, making it fit tightly below by means of wrapping on the outside, and attaching the upper end to the pump, by which the water is drawn up to the furnaces on the river bank.

When Mr. Tompkins inserted his tube, the water gushed out so forcibly, that instead of applying the pump, he only lengthened his tube above the well. The stream followed it with undiminished velocity to his water-cistern, sixty feet above the level of the river.

In the next place, he inserted the end of the spout from which the water and gas flowed, into a large hogshead, making a hole in the bottom to let out the water into the cistern. Thus the light gas was caught in the upper part of the hogshead, and thence conducted by pipes to the furnace, where it mingled with the blaze of the coal fire. It so increased the heat as to make very little coal necessary; and if the furnace were adapted to the economical use of this gaseous fuel, it would evaporate all the water of the well, though the quantity is sufficient to make five hundred bushel of salt per day. The same gentleman has since obtained a second gas-well, near the former, and in all respects similar to it. Other proprietors of wells have also struck gas-fountains by deep boring. In one of these wells the gas forces the water up violently, but by fits, the gush continuing for some two or three hours, and then ceasing for about the same length of time. In another of these wells there has been very recently struck, a gas-fountain that acts with such prodigious violence as to make the tubing of the well in the usual way impossible; when the copper tube was forced down through the rushing stream of brine and gas, it was immediately flattened by the pressure; and the auger-hole must be enlarged to admit a tube sufficiently strong and capacious to give vent to the stream without being crushed. In another well, a mile and a half from any gas-well, a powerful stream of gas has been recently struck. It forces up the water with great power; but, unfortunately for the proprietor, the water is too weak to be profitably worked. It appears from this fact, that the gas is not inseparably connected with strong brine. When struck before good salt water is reached, it will operate injuriously, for no water obtained below it can rise al all, unless the pressure of the gas be taken off by means of a strong tube extending below it.

Several wells have been bored to a depth equal to that of the gas-wells, without striking the gas; the source of which seems to lie below, perhaps far below, the depth of the wells. this light, elastic substance, wheresoever and howsoever generated, naturally presses upwards for a vent, urging its way through every pore and crevice of the superincumbent rocks; and the well-borer's auger must find it in one of the narrow routes of its upward passage, or penetrate to its native coal-bed, before it will burst forth by the artificial vent.

The opinion just intimated, that the gas originates in deep coal-beds, is founded on the fact that it is the same sort of gas that constitutes the dangerous fire-damp of coalpits, and the same that is manufactured out of bituminous coal for illuminating our cities. It is a mixture of carbureted and sulphureted hydrogen. Philosophers tell us that bituminous coal becomes anthracite by the conversion of its bitumen and sulphur into this gas, and that water acts a necessary part in the process. Whether the presence of salt water causes a more rapid evolution of the gas, the present writer will not undertake to say; but, somehow, the quantity generated in the salt region of Kanawha is most extraordinary.

It finds in this region innumerable small natural vents. It is seen in many places bubbling up through the sand at the bottom of the river, and probably brings up salt water with it, as in the gas-wells, but in small quantity. The celebrated burning spring is the only one of its natural vents apparent on dry land. This stream of gas, unaccompanied by water, has forced its way from the rocks below, through seventy or eighty feet of alluvial ground, and within eighty yards of the river bank. It is near this burning spring where the principal gas-wells have been found. But, twenty-five years ago, or more, a gas-fountain was struck in a well two hundred feet deep, near Charleston, seven miles below the Burning Spring. This blew up, by fits, a jet of weak salt water twenty or thirty feet high. On a torch being applied to it, one night, brilliant flames played and flashed about the watery column in the most wonderful manner.

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