Dispatches from Southwest Virginia

Daily Dispatch, Volume 7, Number 144, 19 June 1855, pg. 1



Departure from Abingdon for the Salt Wells —Compromise to Visit them instead of Salt River—The peculiarities of the Valley of North Holston—Its deposites of Gypsum and Salt—The Preston Salt Valley—The Salt Wells

On the morning of Friday, the 8th inst., our company after enjoying largely and most pleasantly, the hospitality of their generous and liberal friends of Abingdon, sat out for the Salt Wells of Washington and Smyth — We were minus, two of our number, (Mr. Mordecai and Mr. Gill.,) who had returned home very much to their loss and our regret. Messrs. Robertson and Preston, accompanied us to the Wells, as did Mr. Wm. G. Ferguson, (formerly of Richmond,) who holds an important station at the Salt Works, and to whom we were much indebted for his kindness.

Our two stages, carriage and buggy, and “citizens on horses,” formed quite an imposing cavalcade to the surprise of the natives. We were now about to perform an imdispensable part of our pilgrimage. We were all under a religious obligation for one cause and another to visit Salt river, but had compromised with our consciences to substitute the Salt Wells for the arid plains at the head of that notable stream. The substitution might not be considered fair, since it was more of a pleasure than a punishment to go to the wells; but that is a very good reason why we preferred it! Who would go to the river, when they could visit the wells, and feast at “the Lick,” that pleasant old mansion at the side of the valley?

Leaving the main turnpike, about a mile from Abingdon, we travelled 16 miles in a north easterly direction to Saltville—the name of the place where the works are located. We crossed in our route, with little difficulty, Walker s mountain. After crossing that mountain, we were struck with the peculiar fealures of the country, which indicated the disrupting agencies, which had wrought their effects upon it. Yet the scenery was beautiful, and grew in picturesqueness, as we advanced along the descending line of the valley to the Wells. Our proximity to them, was plainly deducible from the bare hills (from which the timber had been cut for the Salt Works,) whose sides were seamed with deep trenches made by the wheels of wagons loaded with word, as they dragged their way to their bases. As we emerged from a curve in the route, and the Preston Salt Valley burst upon the view, all were struck with its singular beauty. The casual observer, such as I am, had he never known the fact, could have told, that there must be some rare good, as well as rare beauty in this wonderful Valley.

The Preston Salt Valley is included in the Valley of the North Holston, which is marked by an enormous fault or fracture of the rocky crust, which extends for a distance of not less than one hundred miles; but only about fifteen or sixteen miles of its northeastern extremity are said to be characterized by the conditions essential to the accumulation of saline and gypseous ingredients. Gypsum is found at various points in these sixteen miles, lying in Washington and Smyth counties; but thus far, of all the basins in the line of the disruption in the original strata, the Preston Salt Valley is the only one where have been developed the salt deposits and salt water in sufficient quantity for commercial purposes, and there it would seem to be inexhaustible. Many fruitless attempts have been made in other basins to discover it. In one of these efforts a shaft six hundred feet was sunk without finding salt; but it penetrated plaster the entire depth, and the cost of the pit was nearly defrayed by the plaster excavated, it having proved a valuable gypsum, anhydrous, or free from water. These beds of gypsum are of course of unknown extent. They are known to cover a great surface, but their depth has not been ascertained. It is sufficient to know that they are inexhaustible. In the Preston Salt Valley the beds are immense, lying a few feet from the surface, and extending down it is not known how far.

This Valley of the North Holston, shut in by lofty sandstone mountains on the north western and southeastern sides, has a network of short crests and insulated knobs, deep ravines and winding valleys, that give to it a picturesque appearance. The extensive longitudinal fault having been intersected by a series of lateral disruptions, gave to the water by its alternate daming and breaking away, its great power, and drove it in winding currents, shaping the hills and “grooving out the ravines between them.” The excavations along the valley at Saltville, show the violent agencies that have been at work. There you see compact masses of earth and finely pounded slate and stone that have been subjected to a sliding and grinding process and pressure of great power.— There, too, are fossil remains of animals belonging to the Mammoth species, many specimens of which are shown at the salt works. Imagine, as is the case, that these hills and hollows, enriched by the decomposed rocks of the locality, are clothed with luxuriant vegetation, and you may well conceive that the valley is beautiful beyond discription.— But the most interesting part of it is the Preston Salt Valley, of which Professor Henry D. Rogers has given the following faithful description:

“In the middle of this chain of hills of the Holston Valley, lies, beautifully encircled by fertile indented slopes, and a chain of knobs and spurs, the small but remarkable Valley of the Salt Works and Gypsum quarries of the Preston and King estates. The bed of the Valley is an oval shaped plain, of rather more than 300 acres in extent, as smooth as a bowling green, but not as level, having a gentle uniform slope from its south eastern to its north western side, or towards the Holston river. From this rapid stream, it is separated by a nearly straight range of variously shaped limestone knobs, between whose fertile sides descend ravines into the pent-in basin, which discharges its collected waters into the river through the deepest of these transverse passes. On the opposite or south eastern side, the plain is half eugirt by a semi-circular sweep of mountain, or a crescent--like indentation in the flank of the bounding ridge. [Just on the outer edge of this semi-circle, stands the old mansion of the Preston family, where the Board of Trade et als. were most bountifully entertained] The soil of the Valley is wet and peaty, and beneath it, to an enormous depth, there appears to be no solid rock, but a deposit of clay and earth imbedding in places large bodies of rock salt and of gypsum, and saturated in its lower portions with highly concentrated brine.”

Col. T. L. Preston, who owns all but the Southwestern end of the Valley, is the proprietor of adjacent lands, of great fertility, to the extent of about 6000 acres.

The Salt Wells.

These wells are owned by a number of persons. Col. Preston owns more than half of those worked, while there are other wells on his land, not now in use. Some four or more acres only of the King property, corners in upon the salt walls; but that is quite sufficient to afford the proprietors as much of the brine as could be desired. The pumping it up is a small part of the labor of manufacture—two pumps furnishing at present enough water for the whole evaporating power. It is easy to see how the proprietor of salt wells might find himself suddenly in the condition of the man in the Mexican army, who had his barrel of cider tapped at the opposite end, and a rival in the next tent to him selling it at half price! If the water happened to go a little beyond his line, his neighbor might bore into it, and in a saline respect be just as rich as he, though his land might be but a strip in comparison.

The general theory is, that the body of fossil salt, as well as the beds of gypsum, were deposites into the fissures of the fault from the adjacent saliferous and grypseous rocks, which were dissolved by water percolating through them after their disrupture and probable edgewise upheaval; or it may have been as Professor H. D. Rogers suggests, the action of jets of boiling water issuing copiously through the ragged chinks of the fractures. With such an agent, the dissolution would have been rapid, as the geysers or boiling waters of Iceland are known to bring up and deposite in quantities pure silica, a much harder substance than those dissolved in the Preston valley.

Whatever be their origin there, these deposits are, and we trust their owners will make the most of them. The brine is reached about 200 feet from the surface. This brine is the strongest in the world, as well as the purest. Its usual proportion of Salt is about 23 per ct., eighteen gallons yielding one bushel of pure salt. The Syracuse salt wells only have a strength of 17 per ct.—the Kanawha rarely exceeding 10 per ct. It has none of the chlorides of calcium and magnesia, and when evaporated, no appreciable amount of bittern, an ingredient that produces a tendency to the absorption of moisture. Therefore put up in barrels, (the form in which it is transported,) this salt is exposed to the atmosphere without detriment. There is some gypsum in the water, but that becomes incrusted on the bottom of the kettles, and is thus separated from the salt.

The brine rises in the wells (which are four inches in diameter) to within 45 feet of the surface, from whence it is pumped by steam engines into the reservoirs. From these reservoirs it is conducted to the kettles in the evaporating houses by wooden pipes. One of these houses is two miles from the wells, immediately on the bank of the Holston. The others are at the wells. The evaporation is effected in kettles, beneath which are furnaces where heat is constantly kept up, from Monday morning to Saturday night. It is a beautiful process, the crystalization of the salt which takes place on the surface, after which it falls to the bottom, and is scooped up almost as white as snow. After being left to drip awhile in split baskets over the kettles, it is thrown in bulk, whence it is put up in barrels. The salt is believed to be the purest that is manufactured. The table salt is certainly the most beautiful we ever saw. As to the supply from the wells, there is no telling its extent. There has been no falling off in the flow of brine for a long series of years, and it is just as strong now as when first discovered. Moreover, the existence of vast depths of rock salt being ascertained, the capacity of supply be considered unlimited.

Wyndham Robertson, Esq., is the lessee of the Salt Works, as well as the proprietor of an interest in them. He pays an annual rent of $25,000. The annual product of the works is a little over 300,000 bushels. The chief market is East Tennessee and upper Mississippi and Alabama. It is taken down the Holston in large flat boats, and along the Tennessee as far as Muscle Shoals, which is the end of the voyage. The boats can only float down the river, however, upon a rise of three feet at the landing. Last year there was no rise and an immense stock accumulated on Mr. Robinson’s hands, before he was enabled to float off his fleet. The price per bushel at Muscle Shoals, has been latterly 75 cents per bushel; at the works 50 cents.

The wells can supply any demand; and it is likely that after the Railroad line through that country is completed the market for it will be increased. Mr. Robertson has commenced boring on his own land at the upper end of the Valley, for salt. He has bored 600 feet without finding any; but is determined to continue 600 feet further, when, if he has not succeeded before, he will abandon the enterprise.

Col. Preston and Mr. Robertson, each are working Plaster beds and have Plaster mills near the Salt Works. Their operations can be extended in proportion to the demand.

A branch of the Virginia and Tennessee Rail Road, is to be constructed to the Salt Works six miles long. We passed along the embankment in our route to the Wells. A good portion of it is finished. It is confidently predicted, that Saltville with its unlimited supplies of Salt and Gypsum can load a train each way, east and west every day of the year, if the demand will justify it!

Man is lost in admiration, in contemplating the wonderful characteristics of this basin. Its surface is incomparably beautiful, while the riches underneath the soil are inexhaustible. It is a source of wealth at once inappreciable. In its vast beds of Gypsum, that part of Virginia has a fertilizer through all time ; and in the Salt of the Preston Valley, a commercial commodity, that will in all human probability be equally as enduring.

I fear I have wearied the reader with this long account —yet I have omitted a great deal.

The members of the Board of Trade and their companions, after looking at the works, and collecting a great number of beautiful stylactites, which were formed by the water dripping from the reservoirs, (and none of which, I believe, were brought home!) accompanied Col. Preston to his dwelling, called the Lick, situated as above described. There, after a little rest from our rambling about the ground, we partook of an admirable dinner. At the conclusion of the feast, we had a great many good sayings, some of which led me to believe, that the Salt Wells yielded attic as well as table salt, and that our party had imbibed some of that as well as something else !

In the afternoon, we wandered again over the Valley—saw Col. Preston’s fine cattle— the burr mill stone found on his land—went down to the landing at the Holston—thence to the Plaster banks—exhausted all our terms of hyperbole upon the inexhaustible things around us—and returned to the Lick completely down at the heel. More than one dignitary of the Board of Trade were soon seen nodding assent to things for which their assent was neither expected nor desired—and there were other signs of weariness from locomotion and sight seeing, that Col. Preston, kindly brought to a conclusion by inviting the gentlemen to bed! And thus ended our day at the Salt Works. C.