If you take Exit 29 or 35 off Interstate 81 in southwest Virginia, you can drive the winding mountain road to Saltville. This historic community nestles between mountains and gets its name from the salt flats in this unique Appalachian area.
Starting at the Museum of the Middle Appalachians is a great introduction to the area and its history and when I visited in 2019, I was thrilled to chat with the museum’s volunteers who have a wealth of local stories about the town’s history and Civil War connection. Located in the downtown area and clearly marked with signs, this small museum has wonderful exhibits and interactive displays.
Ancient artifacts and fossils discovered in research digs tell the history of Saltville’s earliest days and a collection of Woodland Native American artifacts focuses on the earliest civilizations there. The salt ponds drew colonial settlers to the area, and the natural resource allowed for local economic development.
During the Civil War, Saltville became the “salt capital of the Confederacy” with each southern state owning or contracting a salt furnace. Before the war, salt production averaged 15,000 bushels per year but the conflict boosted production to 4 million bushels at its peak in 1864.
Union troops targetted Saltville on several occasions during the war, resulting in skirmishes and battles in the area. The Confederates dug an impress fortification system on the high ground surrounding the community. The first battle—fought on October 2, 1864—scored a Confederate victory and retention of the important resources. However, on December 20, 1864, Federal troops captured Saltville and wrecked the saltworks.
The museum offers an extensive collection of Civil War artifacts, information about soldiers who fought in the area, and an interactive video display about the attacks on the community. One of the highlight features is a large diorama of the valley and high ground which includes detailed information about the fortifications around Saltville and a chance to see how and where the battles unfolded.
I found it very helpful to have seen a “bird’s eye” view of the area before I headed out to explore the trails and marked Civil War sites around town. (More on that in Part 2 next Friday!)
It’s important to support local museums and historical groups, and the Museum of the Middle Applachian offers an introduction to the area’s history and a wealth of additional information from its volunteers.
Museum of the Middle Appalachians
Details on their website: http://moma.smythchamber.org/