Editor’s note: This is the second piece in a series by Larry L. Rowe on the history of slavery and the salt industry in the Kanawha Valley before the Civil War, and Booker T. Washington’s boyhood heroes after the war.
On Feb. 11, 1808, David Ruffner and Joseph Ruffner II pumped salt brine from a deep well they drilled for 18 months through more than 50 feet of bedrock. They invented percussion drilling for their deep well — the first in America and perhaps in the western world.
The Ruffners started a major extractive industry in the wilderness of the Kanawha Valley. The salt well produced a strong salt brine that was boiled in furnaces to manufacture massive quantities of salt, seven years before the first cloth factory was established in 1815 in New England.
In 1795, the Ruffner family came to the wilderness of western Virginia to a settlement called Charleston. It was established in 1788 by four Clendenin brothers who named the town in honor of their father, Charles Clendenin. The Kanawha Valley had few settlements along the Great Kanawha River.
Joseph Ruffner, the patriarch of the Ruffner family in Luray, Virginia, and father of David Ruffner and Joseph Ruffner II, brought the family to the Kanawha Valley to produce salt for sale in new western markets. Salt, before refrigeration, was essential to pack meats for storage and shipment.
Earlier in the spring, he explored alone on horseback over the Allegheny Mountains, to reach the salt water spring he had purchased the year before at the mouth of Campbells Creek about five miles up the Great Kanawha River.
Joseph Ruffner was a farmer at heart and, upon arrival, he purchased thousands of acres, including the open river land at today’s state Capitol grounds, where he could farm. The family constructed a two-story log cabin that is preserved near Daniel Boone Park. Two years after his arrival, Joseph Ruffner leased the salt spring at Campbells Creek to Elisha Brooks, making him the area’s first salt maker. Brooks’ salt production was not industrial. He could make about three bushels, or 150 pounds, of salt per day.
By 1800, Charleston had 65 residents, 12 houses, a jail and courthouse.
Joseph Ruffner died in 1803 leaving the dream of a major salt operation to his older sons, David and Joseph II.
The success of the Ruffner drilling and salt furnaces in 1808 started a “salt boom” in the Kanawha Valley. One speculator, George K. Taylor, owned 585,000 acres valued on the 1814 tax books at $99,440.
By 1810, Kanawha County had 3,866 residents and 352 people held in slavery. Most of the population was upriver from Charleston in the salt works that surrounded today’s Malden. In 1810, there were 16 salt furnaces. By 1815, there were more than 50 salt furnaces that produced 600,000 bushels, or 30 million pounds of salt per year.
The area became known nationwide as the “Kanawha Salines.” The salt industry turned a compact river valley into an island of intense industrialization on the American frontier. A factory-based industry was remarkable for its size, time and location in a wilderness well away from eastern markets and early thread-spinning operations.
It is said that cotton made the “cradle of industrialization” in New England. If so, the early salt factories in the Kanawha Valley were the cradle of factories and frontier industrialization.
The Ruffner family was joined by Shrewsburys, Dickinsons, Lewises, Tompkins, Donnallys and others who would become “Salt Kings,” making more than $50,000 per year. Salt Kings built their fortunes on the hard labor of enslaved people who produced millions of barrels of salt from 1810 to 1865.
As an early Lutheran and Mennonite family, the Ruffners would have questioned slavery from time to time, but they did not question the majority white belief that blacks were inferior as a race and individually until Lewis Ruffner after the Civil War. Like all salt industrialists, the Ruffners were pragmatic entrepreneurs. Slaves worked the salt industry for a half century with no known uprising or violent discord, and, sadly, with no benefit to their loved ones and future generations.
Slave labor was less expensive and more dependable than free labor. Some free labor workers were available locally in the early years of the industry. During the War of 1812, salt operations greatly increased, and local workers joined the federal army, leaving production-hungry industrialists to rely on Virginia slavery.
Salt factories were labor-intensive and dangerous. Most any labor available, free or forced, had to be imported to the wilderness surrounding the Ruffner settlement. Forced work was well suited to an industry of hard and dangerous work.
After the War of 1812, salt profits dropped with overproduction. New competitors appeared with renewed trade shipments from Britain and over new canals built to connect the Ohio River and beyond.
In 1817, to increase salt profits, a brilliant young attorney, Joseph Lovell, joined by David Ruffner and other major salt producers, created a contract association named the Kanawha Salt Company to fix salt prices and limit production. Such business combinations in restrain trade were used into the Gilded Age, creating giant business trusts that would be outlawed in 1890 by the Sherman Antitrust Act.
Today, unaffected by American law, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries operates openly as an international cartel, controlling oil prices and limiting production to stabilize markets and increase profits.
By the 1860s, Kanawha salt lost its 50-year dominance in the industry. In 1850, there were 33 salt companies operating in Malden. By the 1860s that number dwindled to fewer than 15. By 1875, there were fewer than 10 active producers and by 1890, only the J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works remained in operation. The Dickinson factory closed in 1945.
Kanawha salt maintained its national reputation for flavor and high quality in curing and packing meats. It is reported that Kanawha salt was recognized and awarded at the 1851 World’s Fair in London — known as the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, where Prince Albert had the Crystal Palace erected. Also reported was Lewis Ruffner’s “dairy grade” salt recognized at the 1867 World’s Fair in Paris called the Exposition Universelle.
A new system of salt production began in Malden in 2013 to produce gourmet salts by the great great-grandchildren of Malden’s last major salt industrialist, John Q. Dickinson. Chef Nancy Payne Bruns and her brother, Lewis Payne, use a solar evaporation process after brine is pumped 350 feet from an ancient underground salt sea to drying tables for processing. Under the brand name, J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, they sell their gourmet salt in all 50 states.
John P. Hale opened his seminal work “Trans-Allegheny Pioneers” with the all-telling sentence “Pioneer history does not repeat itself.” In that book, he commemorated the Ruffner achievement in their first deep well on the western Virginia frontier. writing,
“[I]t is difficult to appreciate the difficulties, doubts, delays and general troubles that beset them then. Without preliminary study, previous experience or training, without precedents in what they undertook, in a newly settled country, without steam power, machine shops, skilled mechanics, suitable tools or materials, failure, rather than success, might reasonably have been predicted.”