Breathitt’s First Industry

By Stephen D. Bowling

Salt was once “Big Business”

In the early 1750s, brave men from Virginia and North Carolina first began to cross the Appalachian Mountains into Kentucky County. They followed the lead of such intrepid explorers as Dr. Thomas Walker, Christopher Gist, and the McAffee Brothers. They came for two primary reasons: the abundance of wild game and the abundance of natural salt licks.

Christopher Gist and George Washington noted many large salt licks and open salt wells during their trip over the Allegenehy mountains in 1754.

The first settlers that followed Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton looked for areas where salt licks were plentiful. To these settlers, the game and the salt licks were inseparable. These areas were highly prized by the settlers. In an age when refrigerators and canned goods were only dreams, salt served as the leading preservative of food. Many smokehouses and meat houses still exist throughout the county even today. Salt still plays a vital role in food preservation in each of these smokehouses.

One of Kentucky’s most significant salt works was at Goose Creek in Clay County. They were largely destroyed by opposing forces during the Civil War.

These salt licks also played a vital role in the natural food chain of most of the large game animals, including bison, elk, and the Eastern whitetail deer, which roamed throughout Eastern Kentucky. These animals created trails that led to areas where these deposits provided a much-needed nutrient to these animals. The early settlers benefited from these trails and these above-ground brine deposits attracted an abundance of wild game.

Boiling water for salt required a great deal of hard work, felling trees for firewood, hauling water, and breaking salt for transport. Salt mines in the western territories soon replaced the salt boilers of our early days. – Source

Many areas of Breathitt County boasted several early licks. Strongville, now Sulphur Gap and Whick, was settled because of its proximity to a deposit on what is now Lick Branch. At least three other Lick Branches exist throughout the county. These licks were a great source of money for many of the early settlers who built homes near these salt licks.

The process of extracting the salt into a usable form was quite simple. These salt licks were simply shallow pools of briny water. Settlers simply filled large salt kettles and placed them over a fire to boil. The briny solution would eventually boil dry. The remaining salt residue was broken up into small crystals and sold by the bushel. 

By the 1820s, these natural salt licks could not keep up with the increasing demand. Residents began to sink salt wells from which they could extract briny water in order to make salt. The following notes on existing drilled salt wells are taken from In the Land of Breathitt, which was published in 1940 by the Works Progress Administration. 

“One of the more important salt works in eastern Kentucky was located on Troublesome Creek about one and one-half miles upstream from the mouth of Lost Creek. In 1838, a report to the Kentucky House of Representatives stated that these works had a daily capacity of ten bushels. This is undoubtedly the Breathitt Salt Works referred to in the 1840 U. S. Census as having a product of seventy bushels and with three employees.

The Haddix Salt Works are featured on an early map of Breathitt County produced in 1856 by Black, Adams, and Charles.

(Another) … early salt works was near present-day Haddix, a hamlet about eight miles from Jackson, on the site of the L & N Depot. In 1837, William S. Haddix and his son-in-law, Col. Louis C. Bohanon, drilled 420 feet for the well. At two hundred, they struck a vein of coal variously reported from eleven to sixteen feet thick. They drilled on through it until they reached briny water. This water was first piped into a cistern and then it was run into salt kettles, which were then placed over a hot stone furnace fire. After the water boiled down, the salt was put up by the bushel. Mr. Tom Haddix, of Haddix, whose father was co-founder of this works, still (in 1940) has in his possession a small kettle with a capacity of thirty gallons. Most of the kettles were larger. The brine obtained at this well produced a bushel of salt from 100 gallons (of brine water). The water obtained at the Leatherwood Salt Works yielded from sixty-five to seventy gallons when economically worked.

Salt was sold to the people of the surrounding county at $1.00 per bushel and the surplus was shipped down the Kentucky River as far as Irvine, Estill County, in large canoes. It was sold along the way and, when the supply was gone, the canoes returned. At one time this salt works could turn out 100 bushels a day.

Another old salt works in the vicinity was at the end of the present (1940) Lost Creek Bridge. Around 1875, salt was $2.00 a bushel, although the price was regularly $1.00 until the railroad reached Jackson. People bought this salt as fast as it was made. In an earlier period, when many settlers were still coming in, they had to go to Clay County for salt. Salt works, near present-day Copeland Station at the mouth of Shoal Branch, were operated and closed before the War between the States. A salt well was also owned by the Noble family. All of these wells had to be bored through a vein of coal about two hundred feet down.”

A view of Sidney Edwards Morse and Samuel Breese’s map of Kentucky in 1845 shows numerous large salt operations in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, including the Haddix and Lost Creek Salt Works. This view was published in Morse’s North American Atlas.

In the 1890s, steam, ice chests, and the railroad virtually ended the long reign of salt as Breathitt’s major industry. Steam allowed for the easy harvest of timber which lead to Breathitt’s second industrial boom beginning in the early 1850s. The lure of easily obtainable fortunes turned interests away from the difficult and time-consuming work of the salt business to the wealth of the surrounding forests and the combustible black gold that lay under them.

© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
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