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Kanawha County (outside Charleston)

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Kanawha, seventh oldest, fourth largest, and, with a 2000 population of 200,073, by far the most populous of West Virginia's fifty-five counties, was formed in 1789 and named for the river that runs through it. Kanawha is also one of the state's most diverse counties. Its varied topography encompasses mountains and a level river plain and yields an abundance of natural resources. Its architecture ranges from prehistoric mounds to pioneer houses, from World War I housing developments to some of the largest chemical plants in the nation.

Agriculture, of course, was important to Kanawha's early economy. Thomas Green, a Richmond lawyer, noted in August 1826 that “the valley of the Kenawha [ sic] produces corn equal to the James River bottoms … and melons of the largest size … the peaches are also very fine.” Long before Mr. Green praised the peaches, the saltworks along the Kanawha River, several miles upstream from Charleston, had overshadowed agriculture. In fact, salt was the mainstay of the valley's economy from the beginning of European settlement until the Civil War. Joseph Ruffner purchased land at the site of Malden, or Kanawha Salines, in 1785 and leased salt privileges to Elisha Brooks in 1797. That year Brooks drilled the first well and built the first furnace. Early in June 1810, Robert Lewis, George Washington's nephew and former private secretary, passed through on his return to eastern Virginia from a trip to Ohio. About eight miles from Charleston, he observed,

you come to the Kenawha salt works carried on by Ruffner & others.… Industry, cleanliness, and every mark of judgement & nice economy is observed here. No drunkenness—confusion or disorder of any kind whatever appeared.… The salt is remarkably white & clean. The water is drawn up … by a large horizontal cog wheel, worked by an ox or a horse at pleasure. From 80 to 100 kettles are boiling at the same moment, worked by a furnace under ground, an[d] extending the whole length of the two rows of boilers.

Continuing onward into the mountains, “the deep and somber Kenhawa [ sic] moving slowly but majestically along to the right,” Lewis stopped at the widow Moore's “lofty 2 story house.” He discoursed with her on the subject of Providence, which he would have enjoyed more had she not “habituated herself to spitting, which, is done every half minute throughout the day.”

By August 1810, according to Zakok Cramer, eleven salt furnaces were in operation at Malden. Five years later, another reporter counted fifty-two furnaces that produced 600,000 bushels of salt annually. Cincinnati's flourishing meatpacking industry was the prime customer, and water transportation via the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers, between the Salines and midwestern markets, was easy and cheap.

The sense of order and cleanliness that Robert Lewis had noted did not last long, at least not if Anne Royall's impressions, recorded in 1826, can be believed:

[T]hese 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 [ sic] of the machinery, day and night; the bare, rugged, inhospitable looking mountains, from which all timber has been cut, give to it a gloomy appearance.… The river, which is extremely beautiful, is the only relief to the scenery.

After they stripped the mountains of their timber, salt makers looked underground to another natural resource for fuel. In 1840 the ninety salt furnaces that dotted the valley consumed more than 200,000 tons of coal, more than half the total tonnage produced that year in Virginia. Salt production peaked in 1846 at more than three million barrels annually. After the Civil War, when Chicago began to eclipse Cincinnati as “meat packer to the world,” more easily obtainable salt from Michigan supplanted the Kanawha product. As the demand for Kanawha salt dwindled the demand for coal increased. Kanawha coal came into its own after the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway came through the county in the 1870s, providing a far more efficient, economical, and reliable means of transport than river barges.

In addition to salt and coal, a third resource, natural gas, would ultimately have the greatest impact on the valley's industrial development. Hints at the extensive natural gas that underlay the land were abundant, primarily because of the natural phenomenon known as the Burning Springs. In the late eighteenth century, George Washington and Andrew Lewis jointly acquired a 250-acre tract “for and on account of a bituminous spring which it contains, of so inflammable a nature as to burn as freely as spirits, and is nearly as difficult to extinguish.” Virginia's governor, Thomas Jefferson, signed their patent and wrote of the spring in his Notes on Virginiain the 1780s:

On presenting a lighted candle or torch within eighteen inches of the hole it flames up in a column eighteen inches in diameter, and four or five feet in height, which sometimes burns out within twenty minutes, and at other times has been known to continue three days, and then has been still left burning.

Burning Springs, which no longer exists, lay midway between the present-day towns of Malden and Belle. A historical marker commemorates the site.

Kanawha County's abundant natural gas resources fueled its twentieth-century industrial growth just as salt and coal had fueled its nineteenth-century development. With the outbreak of World War I, the country's need for chemical manufacturing plants grew almost overnight. The federal government built a naval ordnance plant and an armor plate mill in South Charleston and a plant that manufactured chemicals for munitions at Nitro. The county's population increased from 81,457 in 1910 to 119,650 in 1920, and the area became known as Magic Valley.

The government also provided housing adjacent to the plants. Charleston benefited directly from the influx, but small towns to its southeast and northwest, stretching along the banks of the Kanawha, grew as well. Although today these towns are primarily bedroom communities of Charleston, each has preserved enough of its past to define its individual character. It is in these riverfront communities, as well as Charleston itself, that Kanawha County's chief architectural resources are found.

Inasmuch as Malden was the center of so much of Kanawha County's early history and development, and because it is the first town on the northern bank of the river east of Charleston, listings that follow begin there, then proceed on U.S. 60 (which traces the route of the James River and Kanawha Turnpike), through Belle and Cedar Grove. Listings then proceed downstream to Charleston on West Virginia 61 along the southern bank of the Kanawha. This route passes, in sequence, the towns of Pratt, East Bank, Winifrede Junction, and Marmet. West of Charleston, listings continue on the southern bank of the river along U.S. 60 from South Charleston to St. Albans. The last “quarter hour” of the clockwise tour begins again on the northern side of the river, returning eastward on West Virginia 25 through Nitro and Institute back to Charleston.

Writing Credits

Author: 
S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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