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