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West Virginia Economy


Commodore Oliver H. Perry
Commodore Oliver H. Perry

A small lumber industry began when the water-powered sawmill was introduced and the packhorse trails from the east were widened into wagon roads. Along with the rivers, these provided avenues to markets. The opening of the Mississippi River to American trade after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the development of the steamboat, and the construction of roads and turnpikes, beginning with the National Road to Wheeling in 1818, further opened the area.

West Virginia’s first large industry was salt making. After 1808 it was a major enterprise in the Kanawha Valley, which became one of the world’s great salt-producing centers. Smelting of iron increased toward the end of the 18th century and later was centered in the Northern Panhandle and the Monongahela Valley.

Peter Tarr, who built the first iron furnace west of the Alleghenies, supplied cannonballs used by Commodore Oliver H. Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813, during the War of 1812. Wheeling, a major iron smelting center, was known as the Nail City. The beginning of service on the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad to Wheeling in 1853 gave its iron industry a great boost. Coal, West Virginia’s basic resource, had been discovered on the Coal River in 1742 by two explorers, John Peter Salling and John Howard, but its industrial potential was not realized until saltmakers in the Kanawha Valley began to use it in 1817 as fuel for their salt furnaces. A short boom in the mining of cannel coal (used to make coal oil for lamps) started in 1848, but dropped off after petroleum was found in 1859.

West Virginia was also a rich source of other fuels. Salt makers drilling for brine often struck gas or oil, to their annoyance. In 1841 natural gas was first put to industrial use, and in 1859, digging for oil began. A well drilled at Burning Springs in May 1860 started one of West Virginia’s first oil booms. A slightly earlier oil strike on the Little Kanawha River made that area a target for Confederate raiders during the first years of the Civil War. "West Virginia" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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