Description of Burning Spring and the Kanawha Valley Salt Industry
Sketches of History, Life, and Manners, in the United States (1826)
Anne Royall
pp. 42-48

Kenhawa County - With a degree of high-wrought enthusiasm, I hastened on, regardless of every object beside, to the salt-works, and the celebrated burning spring, which are on the bank of Kenhawa river, about twenty-eight miles below the falls. This burning spring is no spring at all - how it came to assume the name is strange; and instead of one there is seven, which are nothing more than this. "The surface of the earth is worn away by some means, (probably by setting it on fire so often as is done,) into a hollow, not a foot in depth; this cavity receives the rain water, which is kept from sinking by the air that blows violently through a number of small apertures in these cavities." The holes through which the air issues are round, and about the size of one's little finger; they looked precisely as though they were bored with a spike gimlet. I saw but two of those springs as they are called (The others were not far off, but my curiosity was satisfied.): one had water in it, the other was dry. We heard the bubbling of the water ere we saw the spring, which being agitated by the wind from beneath, keeps it in continual motion, resembling water when boiling very fast. The noise is like that produced by blowing through a tube with one end in water. This water was evidently no other than rain water, which probably fell the preceding day; it was very turbid indeed, occasioned, no doubt, from its violent agitation, and to this, perhaps, may be ascribed, the wearing away of the earth. From this spring no stream arises, nor any vestige to show that ever one flowed from either of those which I saw. From the one that contained no water I could discern, very plain, the air issuing through those apertures already mentioned, which were as numerous as the holse in a riddle, and from both issued the most nauseous smell in nature, something like the wipings of a foul gun, but much more insupportable. These places were discovered by boatmen, who were seeking for wood to kindle a fire after night, with a torch in their hands, and happening to carry the torch near one of them, communicated a flame to it; it happened to have water in it at the time, and hence I suspect took the name of the Burning Spring. There is no difference in the burning of the air, (for it is the air that burns,) with respect to their being with or without water; the flame is equally strong in both cases, and when set on fire will burn for months if not extinguished by rain. The flame is usually about two feet in height. Boatmen frequently boil their meat over these springs by setting them on fire, and hanging the pot over them. I would not be surprised if an explosion should take place in the neighborhood of these springs some day, particularly if the air should by any means become heated or confined. No opinion has been expressed respecting this phenomenon, or any pains taken to ascertain the nature or cause of its existence.

Salt-works. - The salt-works in this county are another natural curiosity; they abound on both sides of the river, for the distance of twelve miles. This is another evidence of the providential care of the Deity. Here is a spot, that were it not for this article of commerce, and the facility with which it can be sent to market, would be destitute of almost every comfort and convenience of life. Immense quantities of salt are made here annually; upon an average one about million of bushels, which employ one thousand hands. This salt is sent down Kenhawa river in boats to every part of the western country, and exchanged for articles of consumption. It appears, however, notwithstanding this great bounty of nature, that very few of the proprietors have realized any solid advantage from it; owing, perhaps, to want of capital in the commencement, want of skill, or want of commercial integrity, or perhaps to all three. The salt water is obtained from the bottom of the river by means of a gum (An American term for a hollow tree, after it is taken from the forest.), which is from eighteen to twenty feet in length, and from four to five feet wide; these gums are from the sycamore tree. They are prepared by making a crow at one end, and a head to fit it tight. This being done, about twenty hands repair to the place where it is to be sunk, which is at the edge of low water, on the river; not any where, for the salt water is only found within certain limits. But to return, all hands proceed with provisions, and plenty to drink, to the place. The gum is first placed in the water on one end, (the one with the crow,) a man is then let down into it by a windlass, and digs round the edge with an instrument suited to the purpose; when he fills a bucket with the sand, gravel, or earth, which he meets in succession; the bucket is immediately drawn up, emptied, and let down again, and so on till the gum descends to a rock, which is uniformly at the same distance. As the man digs, the gum sinks; but no man can remain in it longer than twenty or thirty minutes, owing to the excessive cold that exists at the bottom; and another one is let down, and so on in rotation, till their task is performed. In the mean time a pump is placed in the gum to pump out the water as the men work, which otherwise would not only hinder, but drown them. This pump is kept continually at work; about eight or ten days and nights are consumed in this operation; the head is then put in, which effectually excludes the fresh water; and a man from a lofty scaffold commences boring through the rock, which takes some time, as the best hands will not bore more than two feet per day, and the depth is from one to two hundred and fifty, and in some instances three hundred feet, through a solid rock! The moment he is through, the salt water spouts up to a great height, and of stronger or weaker quality as it is near or remote from a certain point on the river, which is the place where salt water was first discovered. Their manner of boring is nothing more than an iron of great strength, and of considerable length, made very sharp at one end, while the other end is fixed into a shaft of wood, and a heavy lever fixed to this; the performer stands still on the scaffold and continues to ply the augur (as it is called) in a perpendicular direction. This part of the business is not so laborious as the other; nor does the performer require that relief which is indispensable in sinking the gum; but he must have some dozens of augurs continually going to and from the smith's shop. I saw several of these at work, and likewise those at the gum; it is impossible for any one to guess what a wretched appearance those poor creatures make when they are drawn out of this gum. They are unable to stand, and shiver as if they would shake to pieces; it can hardly be told whether they are black or white, their blood being so completely chilled. The trouble of making salt, after salt water is obtained, is trifling. When the man finishes boring, a tin tube is placed in the rock, and by means of a machine, which is worked by a horse, water is thrown into cisterns, from which it is committed to the boilers. This water is so strong that they make it into salt twice in twenty four hours! All their wood being consumed, they are now boiling with coal, which abounds in their mountains.

These salt-works have very recently been established. Some few years since, in the latter part of a very dry summer, the river being lower than it was ever known since it was settled by white people, the top of an old gum was discovered at the edge of low water, and salt water issuing out of it. In many places, where the fresh water had left it, it was incrusted into salt by the heat of the sun. It is supposed that the Indians, when they were in possession of the country, sunk the gum, and perhaps made some attempts at making salt. Col. David Ruffner, a very enterprising man, was the first that established salt-works in Kenhawa, at the place just mentioned; after him several others; but the old well, as it is called, that is, where the gum was discovered, is by far the strongest water, and it is weaker in proportion as it is distant from it, either up or down the river. Col. Ruffner invented a machine which forces the water up hill, to the distance of three miles, for which I understand he obtained a patent. The salt made here is not so fair as that made at King's works, in Washington county, but it is much stronger, and better for preserving meat. I saw this proved in Alabama; the meat (that is, bacon,) that was cured with the salt from King's works, spoiled, while that which was salted with the Kenhawa salt, did not. Great quantities of it is consumed in Alabama; they take it in boats down the Ohio and up the Tennessee river. A great quantity is likewise taken up the Cumberland to Nashville. But what astonishes me, is, that they have to bore double the depth now to what they did at first; even at the old well, the water sunk, and they were compelled to pursue it by boring; this is the case with all of them.

These salt-works are dismal looking places; the sameness of the long low sheds; smoking boilers; men, the roughest that can be seen, half naked; hundreds of boat-men; horses and oxen, ill-used and beat by their drivers; the mournful screaking of the machinery, day and night; the bare, rugged, inhospitable looking mountain, from which all the timber has been cut, give to it a gloomy appearance (The river, which is extremely beautiful, is the only relief to the scenery.). Add to this the character of the inhabitants, which, from what I have seen myself, and heard from others, lack nothing to render them any thing but a respectable people. Here have settled people from the north, the east, and the west of the United States, and some from the nether end of the world. However refined, however upright, however enlightened, crafty and wicked they might have been previous to their emigration, they have become assimilated, and mutually stand by each other, no matter what the case is, and wo be to the unwary stranger who happens to fall into their hands. I never saw or heard of any people but these, who gloried in a total disregard of shame, honour and justice, and an open avowal of their superlative skill in petty fraud; and yet they are hospitable to a fault, and many of them are genteel. I see men here whose manners and abilities would do honour to any community, and whilst I admired, I was equally surprised that people of their appearance should be content to live in a place which has become a byword. But their females in a great measure extenuate this hasty sketch. As nature compensates us in many respect for those advantages she denies us in others, and in all her works has mingled good with evil, you have a striking instance of this in the female part of the society of this place. In no part of the United States, at least where I have visited, are to be found females who surpass them in those virtues that adorn the sex. They possess the domestic virtues in an exemplary degree; they are modest, discreet, industrious and benevolent, and with all, they are fair and beautiful; albeit, I would be sorry to see one of those amiable females become a widow in this iron country, in which, however, for the honour of human nature be it remembered, there are a few noble exceptions amongst the other sex, which may justly be compared to diamonds shining in the dark.

Antebellum Period in West Virginia

West Virginia Archives and History