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Salt Resources of Virginia

[Note: Taken from DeBow’s Review of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial Progress and Resources, New Orleans, Louisiana, September, 1858, Volume 25, issue 3.]

The Richmond Enquirer has been for sometime publishing a series of paperes upon the “Resources, Improvements, and Commerce of Virginia.” Though we are unacquainted with the writer or his antecedents, we have consulted his papers with some interest, as without doubt, the emanations of a very practical mind. Upon the subject of salt, he says:

“Common salt for domestic or culinary purposes, is not only an important item in our natural resources, but also one of the great necessities of life, and one for which there is no substitute-we must either buy it or make it.

“The consumption of salt throughout the world is prodigious. It is computed that a half bushel per annum to each inhabitant is used wherever it can be conveniently obtained, and proportionately less in all countries where it is less accessible; but Nature has so universally distributed her provisions for the human family that there is scarcely a country on the globe where this article cannot, or could not be obtained through the intelligence of its people; and, we may remark, in the connection, that this rule is alike universally; for all people and all countries, profit, prosper and enjoy the provisions of Nature, ac cording to their standard of intelligence or industry. It is true that some portions of the world are peculiarly favored in the distribution of natural resources and gifts, but it does not follow that the people are naturally rich, or proportionately prosperous; that depends on their exertions, their industry and their knowledge.

“The saliferous formations, or salt deposits of Virginia, are on the same grand characteristic scale, which distinguishes her coal, her iron, and her cop per formations. In the West, on the great Kanawha, that noble’ river of the woods, the salt wells, are, perhaps, the most extensive in the world, and the probability is, that Kanawha alone could supply the world with salt for ages, since it is known to exist for over twenty miles through the valley of that river; and this would be no small number of bushels, even if we only allow twenty pounds to each of the one thousand millions who use it more or less.

“In this region peculiar facilities exist for manufacturing the article, since it lies in the midst of the great coal region of the State; and so convenient is this fuel deposited and obtained, that it can be mined, in many cases, immediately in the vicinity of the salt works, and, frequently, it can be delivered by the means of schutes, inclined planes, &c., directly from the mines to the furnaces, without the aid of machinery. The gasses which arise from coal, carboniferous, or bituminous formations, as in China and many other places, here escape from numerous salt wells in abundance, and effect a great economy in the salt making operation, though it is evidently not used as judiciously and effectively as a scientific application would warrant us to expect.

“The depth at which the salt water is reached is various, and generally extends from a few feet to about one thousand, though it is found much deeper and probably exists many thousands of feet below the surface. With the great extent of the Kanawha salt formations, and the facilities for manufacturing it, there can be no limits placed to the production of the article but the demand, as soon as this magnificent region can be fully opened out and developed by means of railroad communication with the East and West, but particularly by the river itself, when improved as designed. The quantity of salt which the West will demand from the Kanawha salt wells, will be prodigious in the course of a few years, when the supply will be regular, with the means of constant transportation and the permanence of a market not liable to the sudden fluctuations which now seriously effect the Kanawha salt manufacturers.

“The quantity of salt required to supply the wants of the United States is not less than fifteen million bushels per annum, or about half a bushel to each inhabitant. It has been stated that we require a bushel to each inhabitant, but that is evidently too much, though it is probable that we use a larger pro portion than the average consumption per head in most other countries. In England the consumption of salt per head, is calculated at twenty-five pounds, and in France at twenty pounds. But even supposing that we consume annually a half bushel each, or fifteen million bushels per annum, the business of supplying that demand becomes one of great importance, and, if imported, it must necessarily cause a great drain of the precious metals, or their equivalent. But great as the business may be, there are three States in the Union which can supply the whole of that demand with ease, at moderate prices. Virginia herself could profitably supply herself and furnish the South and West with five million bushels per annum; the great bulk of which would be produced in the Kanawha region; but there are salt deposits on the east of the mountains and in the southwest, which, though less in extent, are probably equally as valuable, on account of the strength and purity of the salt water and the lo cation of the wells. The most eastern deposit of salt that has been found ap pears to be located in Pittsylvania county, but the most important is that magnificent deposit of almost pure brine in Smyth county, in southwestern Virginia, where the celebrated Preston salt has been manufactured for the last century. The Preston salines at Saltville produce about three hundred thousand bush el of salt yearly; the character of which, when carefully manufactured, is not excelled by any salt now made in any part of the world; and we have no doubt that an article equal to the refined salt of the Dutch, from which the celebrated “Dutch herrings” receive their peculiar flavor, might be pre pared from those wells, with a small amount of additional care and labor. The brine is the strongest known, one-fourth of the bulk being pure salt, twenty bushels of brine produce five bushels of salt. Those salines are as capable of producing one million bushels per annum as the amount now furnished, and, we should judge, with a corresponding degree of profit; and yet the drain on the natural supply would be too limited to be seriously felt for ages to come. A branch road from the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad is extended from the Glade Spring depot to Saltville, which was built expressly for the produce of the Preston salines and plaster banks, and which are here worked in close proximity to each other.

“Coal has been found within sight of the furnaces, and it is supposed to exist in quantity and quality sufficient for every purpose. With such desirable facilities and natural richness, we cannot imagine another locality where Nature has been more liberal; for, in addition to the immense quantities of the purest gypsum and salt, both iron ores and coal are attendant; and black lead, pure silica, limestone, marble, mill stone, or burr, and other minerals, are plentiful, which, with the soils, that are wonderfully rich, even to the peaks of the limestone knobs, render Saltville and the region around one of the richest districts in that peculiarly rich portion of a naturally rich and prolific State. A large part of the Southwest is mountainous and rugged, but the valleys and uplands are wonderfully productive; and even the mountains, which yield nothing to the hand of the farmer, contain countless treasures which can only be revealed and obtained by the pick of the miner. “We may not be censured for remarking that we import and use more foreign salt in Virginia, than we use of our own manufacturing, notwithstanding the immense quantities we have naturally stored away on every hand. England, whose natural deposits of salt are but little greater than our own that is, in Virginia alone, without those of New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Illinois and other Western States-produces thirty millions of bushels per annum, of which nearly twenty millions are exported, and much of this vast excess, in the manufacture of a single article, is sent to the Southern States. Virginia contains salt in abundance, in the East, South, and West, and yet She buy’s the article from England and the North, paying nearly a million of dollars per year, for that which might be obtained at home with advantage to the State as well as the manufacturers. We need not say that such a state of things results from the anti- improvement spirit that has been manifested in Virginia so exclusively, which, in turn, is the natural consequence of the single pursuit of tilling the soil, excluding all others, and, of course, all the great branches of industry, which develope the natural resources of nations and build up cities and commercial centres.”