Ceres, Virginia
Among the hills of Ceres

State Road 42, the Bluegrass Trail, winds its way through the farms of Ceres, occupying the rolling hills in the valley between Big Walker Mountain and Burkes Garden. Wooden barns drop timbers piece by piece into grassy fields. A barn quilt hangs at a crossroads near a historic marker for Henry Groseclose.

Barn quilt along the Bluegrass Trail
Barn quilt along the Bluegrass Trail

Where the valley narrows, we see a trailhead and in a blink we are past it, realizing it was the Appalachian Trail.

Where 16 and 42 diverge
Where 16 and 42 diverge

For a brief few curves, Virginia 42 joins with Virginia 16, known in these parts as the Back of the Dragon. It being a weekday, with the sky spitting rain, we don’t encounter a single motorcycle. But as the folks on Big Walker Mountain know, riders will be testing their mettle on the 32 miles of tight curves between Tazwell and Marion.

Big Walker Mountain
The view from Big Walker Mountain

We choose to stay with 42, the road to Saltville. Behind a barn with a sunflower quilt square, rows of pumpkins stretch into the distance. We wind through Ridge Valley, where a brick school sits on the valley floor, one of the flatter spots along this road. The parking lot is full, so school is in session. A parade of antique vehicles sits outside an auto shop near Brushy Mountain.

Approaching Saltville

In 30 miles, we pass eight cars and a short bus, two propane trucks, and a pickup hauling a cattle trailer. After so much quiet, it’s startling to see a power station and high tension lines, but then we recall that Saltville was a company town, and we’re nearly there. Traffic picks up. A deer dashes across the road just as we round a curve in the creek with a wooden swinging bridge for pedestrians.

Welcome to Saltville
Welcome to Saltville

Saltville jumped on our radar just a few days before, the universe conspiring us to send us there as good road trips often unfold. First, a fellow we met in passing in Harpers Ferry at a coffeeshop mentioned a place “with mastodons and mammoths that Thomas Jefferson knew about.”

Saltville mastodon
Saltville yielded both mastodon and mammoth bones

That was intriguing on the face of it. As we continued along our planned route through the Shenandoah Valley, more voices chimed in. “A must see. One of the more unusual museums you’ll find in Virginia. From the Ice Age to the Space Age.”

The clincher was a re-enactor we met at Natural Bridge. Turned out someone in his family tree – Confederate guerrilla Champ Ferguson – was one of only two Confederate officers hung for war crimes in Virginia, and it happened due to Champ’s leading role in the Saltville Massacre.

As Highway 42 approached downtown, Saltville admittedly had the feel of the mining towns of the Northeast, industrial in nature. And that’s how Saltville spent much of its life.

Salt ponds Saltville
In the heart of the valley, the salt ponds support unique biomes

Brine trapped deep beneath the ground bubbled up in salt ponds in the valley floor, where the earliest evidence of Ice Age fauna was found while Virginia was still a colony. Serious archeological excavations came much later.

Saltmaking happened as soon as a process was developed for pumping brine and extracting the salt through drying. Boiling brine in kettles was one method. The first piping for the saltworks was made of hollowed logs.

Brine pipe
Hollowed log used as brine pipe. Wouldn’t rust!

By the time of the Civil War, salt was worth its weight in gold as a preservative for meat. The Confederacy spent a great deal of manpower protecting this strategic valley from Federal incursion.

Civil War Display
Studying one of the Civil War displays

After the war, salt extraction and the subsequent market for industrial chemicals – managed by large corporations with big budgets and paternal largesse – led to the company town that Saltville became. Alkali works producing caustics joined salt extraction. The Army briefly oversaw a plant to produce poisonous gas. Hydrazine was manufactured in Saltville in the 1960s to power Titan rockets and the Apollo lunar module.

Museum of the Middle Appalachians
A vast sweep of history is recounted at the Museum of the Middle Appalachians

It wasn’t until the 1970s, when the availability of cheap soda ash from Wyoming joined health and safety concerns about plant operations, that the corporations shut their works in Saltville. Jobs evaporated and the population shrank.

Today, Saltville recounts its rich history through the Museum of the Middle Appalachians, the Salt Ponds – connected by a bike path, and now part of a recreation area – and Salt Park, the historic site where the first salt mine and saltworks stood.

Salt Park
Visiting the site of the first extraction of salt in Saltville

While the road we took to Saltville was long and rambling, the road we left along was not. Via Virginia 91, Saltville is less than 20 minutes from Interstate 81 at Glade Spring, just north of Abington.

Reader Interactions


  1. Another place to visit next summer while at the Peaks of Otter. Each month we take two days to visit Virginia history.