Early salt mining history in the Ohio Valley

Early salt mining history in the Ohio Valley

“In 1794, when salt was worth from $6 to $8 a bushel, he projected an expedition into the Indian country near the Scioto River for the discovery of the salt springs said to be worked by the savages near the present town of Jackson.” In giving an account of this indispensable article I will bring in an extract from the life of Griffin Green, by S. P. Hildreth. At the threat of his life and all those with him, ten or twelve in number, he succeeded in finding the saline water and boiled some of it down on the spot in their camp kettle, making about a tablespoonful of salt. While here he narrowly escaped death from the rifle of an Indian who discovered them, unobserved by the party. 

After peace was concluded, this warrior related the circumstance of his raising his rifle twice to fire at a tall man who had a tin cup strung to his girdle on his loins and who was known to be Mr. Green. As he might miss his object, being a long shot, and be killed himself, he desisted and hurried back to the Indian village below the present town of Chillicothe for aid. A party of twenty warriors turned out in pursuit and came on to the bank of the Ohio at Leading creek a few minutes after the whites had left it with their boat and were in the middle of the river. They were seen by the men in the boat, who felt how narrowly and providentially they had escaped.” 

The first settlers in Meigs County got their salt from these Scioto salt works. S. P. Hildreth remembers hearing his father tell of taking a horse and pack saddle and going to the “Scioto Licks,” as they were then called, and working a week for a sack of salt. His business was drawing salt water by means of a hand pole affixed to a sweep above. After receiving his wages, put his salt on the pack saddle and made his way home. Those salt works were under the superintendency of a state officer, and by a law passed January 24th, 1804, renters had to pay a tax of 4 cents per gallon on the capacity of the kettle used in making salt, provided always that no person or company shall under any pretense whatever be permitted to use at any time a greater number of kettles or vessels than will contain 4000 gallons, nor a less number in any one furnace than 600 gallons. After the salt works on the Kanawha were started the people here depended on Kanawha for salt, and for many years it was a place of considerable trade. Young men, on coming of age, went to Kanawha to chop wood or tend kettles when they wished to obtain a little money. It was hardly expected to get money at any other place, and salt seemed to be the medium by which trade was conducted. 

Keelboats were used as a means of transportation, and shipments were made by them of salt to Marietta, Pittsburgh and the lower Ohio. In order to give some knowledge of the origin and progress of the Kanawha salt business, we attach a letter which appeared in the Niles Register, Baltimore, Md., in April, 1815, and was copied from the Meigs County Telegraph, April, 1884. 

Kanawha Salt Works

At the first settlement of this place there was a great “buffalo lick,” as it was called, was discovered where some weak salt water oozed out of the bank of the river. After some time the inhabitants sunk hollow gums into the sand and gravel at that place, into which the water collected, but it was so weak that, although sufficient quantities might be collected, not more than two to four bushels weremade in a day. After the property came into the possession of my brother, Joseph Ruffner, and myself (by divisee), we were desirous to see the effect of sinking large sycamore gums as low down as we could force them. We found great difficulty in this on account of the water coming in so rapidly. When we got down about eighteen feet below the surface of the river we discovered that our gums lodged on a solid, smooth freestone rock, and the water was but little improved as we descended.

We then bored a hole in the rock about 2 inches in diameter, the size generally used subsequently for that purpose. After penetrating the rock eighteen or twenty feet, we struck a vein of water saltier than had been attained in this place before. Our neighbors followed our example and succeeded in obtaining good salt water in the distance of 2 miles below and four miles above us on the river. They all have to sink the gums about eighteen feet to the rock, into which they bore a hole from 100 to 200 feet deep. The rock is never perforated, though the water seeps into the holes in soft or porous places. 

The cost of boring was from $3 to $4 a foot. The first water that is struck in the augur hole is fresh, or an inferior quality of salt water, which is excluded by means of copper or tin tubes put down into the augur hole and secured so that none of the water that comes in above the lower end of the tube can discharge itself into the gum, which has a bottom put into it immediately upon the rock, and is secured in such a manner that no water can get into the tube except that which comes up through the tube from below. 

The water thus gathered in the gum rises about as high as the surface of the river at high water mark, and it requires from seventy to 100 gallons of it to make a bushel of salt. Each well produced on an average a sufficient quantity of water to make 300 bushels of salt per day. There are now established and in operation fifty-two furnaces, and more are being erected, containing from forty to sixty kettles of thirty five gallons each, which make from 2500 to 3000 bushels of salt per day. The quantity may be increased as the demand shall justify. The wood in the course of time must become scarce or difficult to obtain, but we have stone coal that can be used for fuel, and the supply is inexhaustible. 

These works are situated six miles above Charleston, Kanawha Courthouse, sixty-six miles from the mouth of the river and twenty-six miles below the great falls. The river is navigable, with a gentle current, at all seasons of the year for boats drawing two feet of water, and at most seasons for boats of any size. Your obedient, humble servant, David Ruffner. 

Kanawha Salt Works, November 8th, 1814

It appears from old account books that salt rated as high as $2 per bushel in Rutland Township as late as 1820. The first salt water seen on Leading creek was a small pond of reddish water, which in dry weather cattle would visit for drink, the place being near the channel of the creek, about a quarter of a mile below the old Denny mill, in a bend of Leading creek. In 1820 several of the neighbors brought in their kettles and set them on a kind of furnace and made of that water one bushel of salt. After which a company was formed consisting of Benjamin Stout, Caleb Gardner, Thomas Shepherd and Michael Aleshire, who bored a well and erected a furnace and commenced making salt in 1822, when Benjamin Stout bought out the other parties. 

In 1822 Abijah Hubbell and his son, Jabez Hubbell, and BarsleyHubbell bored a salt well above the Stout well and a furnace set for making salt in 1824. Ruel Braley manufactured salt at his works, five miles above on Leading Creek, in 1830. The Bradford and Stedman’s furnace was located about five miles below the Stout well in 1830 or 1831. Still further down the creek Theophilus Jacobs operated a furnace for a few years with a great deal of energy. Near the mouth of Thomas Fork Herriman Plummer bored a well and made salt in 1831. Two other salt wells had been previously attempted in Rutland Township, but failed to obtain salt water. One was bored by Joseph Giles, Sr., and the other one was by Samuel Church in 1822, which resulted in the discovery of a heavylubricating oil, the true value of which was not understood and very little attention was paid to it. ​

After the Rutland furnaces began to make 200 bushels of salt per week the prices came down to 50 cents a bushel. After salt was made in large quantities along the Ohio River the works on the creek became unprofitable, and the manufacture of salt was discontinued. 

As the old Ohio flows….

Jordan D Pickens

Jordan D Pickens is an educator and local historian. His is the co-author of a book on Meigs County history.