2022 Mining History Association


On the Way to the MHA...

Historic Salt and Gypsum Mining
June 20, 2022


Mike and Pat Kaas



Driving southwest through Virginia on Interstate-81, few travelers realize the important role that this part of the state played in supplying critical minerals to the Confederate States during the Civil War.  Scores of mines and charcoal iron furnaces produced pig iron much of which was sent to the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond.  Coal from Virginia’s mines also supplied the iron works.  Niter, AKA saltpeter (potassium nitrate), from limestone caves in the mountains provided a vital ingredient for gunpowder.  The mines at Austinville that had supplied lead for ammunition to George Washington’s Army during the Revolutionary War, were the primary source of the metal to the Confederate war effort.  Modern travelers may be surprised that common salt was very essential to soldiers and civilians alike.  Its many nutritional uses were necessary for livestock and humans, and it was used for preserving meat before refrigeration.  So, we set off for Saltville, Virginia, on the way to the MHA Birmingham conference.  It was the center for salt production for over a century and the self-proclaimed “Salt Capital of the Confederacy.”


Wooly mammoths, giant ground sloths, and other prehistoric animals knew about the salt springs and lakes in the Saltville Valley around 12,000 BCE.  Indians used the salt.  Their settlements have been found in the valley dating from 1000 to 1500 AD.  It wasn’t until 1748 that the Europeans of the Patton Expedition explored southwestern Virginia and discovered the Cumberland Gap and the salt resources.

The salt deposits are in the Mississippian Age (350 million years) Maccrady Formation which is composed of shales, siltstones, limestones, dolostones, and evaporites (salt, gypsum, and anhydrite).  The thickest evaporite beds are in an overturned limb of a syncline caused by the Saltville Thrust Fault.  Thrusting caused older Cambrian rocks to be pushed over the younger Mississippian rocks in the Saltville area.
Saltville, VA, Welcome Sign. Salt and gypsum were produced from deposits in and around Saltville, in Smyth and Washington, Counties

1958 Saltville topo map showing the Olin Mathieson Chemical plant location along the North Fork of the Holston River. (USGS)

The story of Saltville is very much the story of the several key families who developed the salt and gypsum industries.  In 1753, Charles Campbell, a member of the Patton Expedition, was given a land grant from King George II that included the “salt lick.”  His son, General William Campbell, was the Revolutionary War hero at the 1780 Battle of Kings Mountain in Georgia; however, he died in 1781 before Cornwallis’ final defeat at Yorktown, Virginia.  William had married, Elizabeth Henry, the sister of Patriot Patrick Henry.  They had two children, Henry who died very young, and Sarah.  Arthur Campbell, William’s cousin, was guardian for the children.  In 1783, Arthur began the first commercial salt production on the property that would be inherited by Sarah.  Salt brines were heated and evaporated in furnaces with large iron kettles.  After Sarah married Frances Preston in 1793, the Preston Salt Works continued in the hands of the Preston family until 1859.  In that year, a group of four businessmen from Syracuse, New York, headed by George W. Palmer purchased the works.


Historic views of the Salt Works.  (Harpers Weekly, January 14, 1865)

In 1795, William King established King’s Salt Works which competed with the Campbell/Preston interests.  He also owned a landing on the North Fork of the Holston River where salt could be loaded on rafts and floated downriver until it joined the Tennessee River.  King sunk a mine shaft to the salt bed but it was plagued with water.  He decided to utilize the brine evaporation process.


In nearby Abingdon, Virginia, James White, a native of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, had established a mercantile business supplying the pioneers heading west into the Tennessee Valley and Kentucky.  By 1802, White was selling salt from King’s works. He eventually established a trading network that stretched to Alabama and included 55 stores mostly located in river towns.  He traded salt for land and owned large plantations with large numbers of enslaved workers.  His many other business investments included iron mines and furnaces and a quarter share of the Austinville lead mines.  His sons continued his businesses when he died in 1838.


Restored residence of James White, the “Salt King of Abingdon, VA.”  CLICK HERE for historic preservation sign.

Court House in Abingdon, VA, was rebuilt after destruction during the Civil War.

Following King’s death, his wife married Frances Smith, owner of the Buena Vista Plaster Company.  It mined gypsum from the evaporite deposits near Saltville.  The Smith’s daughter married Wyndham Robertson and the company stayed in the Robertson family until it was sold to U. S. Gypsum in 1928.


Salt production from Saltville was critical to most of the states of the Confederacy.  During the Civil War both salt works were leased to Stuart, Buchanan and Company which produced salt on contract to the Confederate government and several individual states.  Union soldiers did not reach Saltville until 1864.  Two battles were fought at Saltville in October and December.  The Union forces were successful in the second battle and inflicted much damage to the salt works; however, they were quickly put back into service when the troops departed.  It is estimated that annual wartime production of salt was 4,000,000 bushels (200 million pounds), up from 150,000 bushels per year before the war.


Reconstructed salt furnace in the Salt Park in Saltville.

During the Civil War there were 36 furnaces and 2600 kettles in operation in Saltville.

Iron kettles were used to evaporate salt brine to recover salt crystals. 

Reconstructed beam engine for pumping salt brines to the surface. 
Following the war, in 1868, the King and Preston works were merged and the Holston Salt and Plaster Company was formed.  George Palmer continued to manage the company until he sold it in 1891.  It became the Mathieson Alkali Works.  After the sale, a new plant was constructed and many new employees came from Mathieson’s operations in England. In subsequent years, several other plants were added to make new chemical products including the hydrazine used to send the astronauts to the moon. Salt production ended in 1906. 


View of the Mathieson Alkali Works in Saltville, VA, ca1930.  (New River Notes) 

U. S. Gypsum plant in Plasterco, VA, a few miles west of Saltville. (USGS) 

Mathieson Alkali Works plant locomotives on display in the downtown Saltville Park.

Tramway tower and buckets hauled limestone from mines to the chemical plant.

View toward downtown Saltville from across the salt ponds.

In the 1930s, the company’s name was changed to the Mathieson Chemical Company.  In 1954 Mathieson merged with Olin Corporation and the Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation was formed. It later became Olin Corporation.  In 1970, Olin announced the closure of the Saltville plants.


The gypsum mines continued to supply the U. S. Gypsum wallboard plant in Plasterco, Virginia, just west of Saltville, until 1999 when that plant closed.  The original U. S. Gypsum mine was the deepest gypsum mine in the world.  A new mine, the Locust Cove Mine, was opened in 1965.  The mine produced 304,000 tons of gypsum in the final year of operation, down from around 500,000 tons per year in the 1980s.  It had a slope entry and reached a depth of 800 feet.  It utilized a modified room and pillar and sub-level stoping mining system using transloaders to haul ore from draw points.  Ore was crushed underground before being transported up the slope on a conveyor belt.


Extensive environmental clean-up activities have been successful since the plants closed.  Few remains of either the salt or gypsum plants remain.  The mining heritage is interpreted in the Salt Park and in an outdoor railroad and tramway exhibit.  The Museum of the Middle Appalachians in Saltville contains exhibits on the Appalachian heritage, history, and paleontology, “From Mammoth to Moon Missions.”  The latter reference is to the NASA rocket fuel that was made at a hydrazine plant in Saltville.

Unless Otherwise Noted, Photos Courtesy of Mike and Pat Kaas





Roger A. Allison, “A Brief History of Saltville,” Saltville Centennial Committee, (undated).  Accessed July 11, 2022, http://www.mahanaimumc.org/uploads/1/5/2/1/15219850/a_brief_history_of_saltville_new.pdf .


Robert C. Whisonant, “Geology and the Civil War in Southwestern Virginia: The Smyth County Salt Works,” Virginia Minerals, V.42, N.3, (Charlottesville: Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy (DMME), 1996), pp. 21-33.  Accessed, July 11, 2022, https://energy.virginia.gov/commercedocs/VAMIN_VOL47_NO03.pdf .


Gilbert White, “Huntsville’s First Entrepreneur, The “Salt King” of Abingdon, VA,” Huntsville History Collection, 2016.  Accessed, July 11, 2022, https://huntsvillehistorycollection.org/hhc/showhpg.php?id=325&a=article .


Frank C. Appleyard, “The Locust Cove Mine,” Mining Engineering, (New York: Society of Mining Engineers, 1965), pp. 59-62.  Accessed, July 11, 2022, from One Mine.



Photos courtesy of Mike and Pat Kaas




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