Beginnings of Kanawha Valley Industry
Long before West Virginia made its Civil War split from Virginia, the Kanawha Valley was known for its mineral wealth. Pioneers knew of the valley’s salt springs at least as early as the late 1750’s when Mary Draper Ingles, an escaped captive of Shawnee warriors, recounted having seen the natives distill salt. In 1774, Andrew Lewis, a brigadier general in the Virginia militia, reported encountering the springs on his march to the Battle of Point Pleasant. It was his soldiers’ defeat of the natives at Point Pleasant that would first open the Kanawha Valley to settlement and industry.
Elisha Brooks* was the first to erect a salt furnace in the valley. At the mouth of Campbell’s Creek, Brooks heated brine in large iron kettles and produced Kanawha Red Salt–red because of its iron impurities–beginning in 1797.
The valley boasted 52 salt furnaces by 1815, and Kanawha’s salt industry soon formed the Kanawha Salt Company, America’s first trust, in order to regulate prices and discourage competition.
A flood on September 29, 1861 drenched the valley, raising the Kanawha river an estimated 3-4 feet per hour. By the time the river peaked at nearly 47 feet, the bulk of the area’s salt industry was in ruin. Further damage was reportedly done by Union soldiers who burned furnaces in an effort to keep Confederate troops from acquiring valuable salt.
Not until World War I did Kanawha Valley brine approach the value it once had in the heyday of salt production. The Warner Klipstein Chemical Company began transforming brine into chlorine and other products in 1914, and other chemical companies followed. The Kanawha River is now used by Monsanto, Union Carbide, Rhone-Poulenc, and Dupont, among others, but most of their products are no longer derived from brine.
According to Robert Doyle Bullard, in his book Dumping in Dixie, “The Kanawha Valley has more than twenty chemical plants that produce compounds used to make explosives, fertilizer, plastics, pesticides, automobile antifreeze, and other toxic and carcinogenic materials” (52). In 2000, the EPA found at least 45 miles of the Kanawha River to be contaminated by carcinogenic agents. Cleanup efforts have so far been carried out mostly on paper.
*I have found no additional information on Elisha Brooks and am not yet able to connect him to any modern Brooks family.