Surprising Saltville

by Linda Card

The town of Saltville, Va., located in northern Smyth County, looks like many other rural towns: quiet, unimposing, relaxed. Despite its outward appearance, Saltville is a surprising story of recovery and reinvention.

Saltville’s History

Saltville’s location along the banks of the North Holston River and its abundance of natural resources, especially salt and gypsum, attracted settlers prior to the Revolutionary War. Throughout its history, Saltville has faced multiple setbacks. Repeated upheavals include the defeat of the Native Americans, the destruction of the town’s namesake salt factories in the Civil War, a Christmas Eve flood disaster that destroyed part of the town and took 19 lives, and — possibly worst of all — the town’s only massive business empire and sole employer, Olin Company, shutting down. Reading about the town’s fascinating history is like peeling the layers of an onion.

After the Olin Company pulled out in 1972, Saltville fell on very hard times. It had been a “scrip town,” where everyone worked for Olin, the company provided everything from housing to medical care to entertainment, and the employees were paid in company “scrip,” which they spent at the company store. Their departure pulled the rug out from under the town.

But that was fifty years ago. My focus is on Saltville today, what’s happening now and where the town is headed in the future. During my visits I discovered the positive and forward-looking views of its residents.    

Overlook view of Saltville, VA.
Saltville, VA's Town Commons with a covered stage, available for outdoor concerts and shows.

Industry & Entrepreneurship

Today, the three major industries and employers in the town of Saltville, Va. are United Salt Corporation, Saltville Gas Storage and Reline America. In addition, VA Insulated Products, Tri-Cities Dry Ice and Titan Wheel Corporation provide employment for Saltville and area residents. The re-emergence of industry in a variety of business fields is a real boon to Saltville and bodes well for future enterprise development.

I visited with Tim Henry, an entrepreneur who, along with his partner, is restoring commercial properties in Saltville. Retired from work at the Oak Hill Academy, Tim believes in the future of Saltville and that renovating older properties is a sound investment. He and his partner have focused on a row of stores downtown that benefited from a revitalization grant the town received in 2007-8 from the Department of Housing and Community Development. They’ve opened the Market on West Main, a cozy ice cream shop, and are developing an antique emporium and Christmas store with plans to lease a café and a bookstore. Tim also owns older residential properties that he expects to refurbish as rentals a la Airbnb. Additional businesspeople are working to upgrade some of the other commercial sites in town — all private investments, including a new veterinary practice.

Tim Henry, entrepreneur and owner of the Market on West Main in Saltville, VA.
Stores in downtown Saltville, VA.

Saltville Attractions

Brian Martin has been Saltville’s town manager for five years. A Smyth County native, Brian has a contagious enthusiasm for the town. He has spearheaded a number of initiatives and funding efforts to move the town along with intentional development. Brian envisions Saltville as an outdoor recreation destination, and with good reason. We talked about all that Saltville, Va. now has to offer, as well as plans for the future. Here’s a snapshot of some of the town’s attractions.

The Museum of the Middle Appalachians is a small but thorough explanation of Saltville and the surrounding area’s unique history. It is a must-see family activity and a great stop on your visit to Saltville. Across the road sits the Town Commons with a covered stage, available for outdoor concerts and shows. Farther along lies a section of railroad track with a steam engine and two cars, a memento of the Norfolk and Western train service that ran through town carrying salt and other products to market.

Brian Martin, Saltville, VA town manager in front of Town Hall.
Museum of the Middle Appalachians, an attraction that covers Saltville, VA, and the surrounding area’s unique history.

A true source of pride for the town is the Municipal Golf Course, the oldest municipal golf course in the state of Virginia. Brian quips that the golf course and the Episcopal Church nearby were built by the British Mathieson Company when they came to Saltville in the 1890s to lure engineers and professionals to relocate from their homes in England to Southwest Virginia. They sit next to the well maintained baseball fields and across from the Well Fields Salt Ponds, a collection of lakes surrounded by protected parkland and hiking trails. This park is a birdwatcher’s dream with visitors coming to spend the early morning along the lakeshore with their binoculars. Farther up the road sits the historic Palmer Mill, a restored grist mill from 1800. It is a naturally scenic site, framed by deep woods and a clear stream that leaves the mountainside and feeds the mill. Palmer Mill hosts live music performances each Friday evening. 

Well Fields Salt Ponds, a collection of lakes surrounded by protected parkland and hiking trails in Saltville, VA.
Palmer Mill, a restored grist mill from 1800, where live music performances are now held.

Kids and adults alike love the Saltville Wave Pool, a welcome summertime destination. Locals call it “Mammoth Waves” for the ocean-sized waves the pool generates and as a nod to the woolly mammoth fossils in the museum. Another Saltville feature for the kids is the Outdoor Classroom. Adjacent to the town’s playground, the classroom consists of a shelter with picnic tables and a learning lab. With support from the Saltville Public Library, the classroom hosts third graders from around Smyth County for lessons in environmental education and local flora and fauna via eight learning stations.

Plans for the Future

As for future attractions, currently in the works is the construction of the Salt Trail. As Brian explained, this is the old railroad bed that runs from downtown Saltville to the town of Glade Spring, a distance of about eight miles. The trail will accommodate hikers, cyclists and horseback riders and complement an extensive trail system in the area, including the Virginia Creeper Trail, Appalachian Trail, the Mendota Trail and Bicycle Route 76. Plans include revamping a small brick building in town to house a trailhead welcome center.

Town members I’ve spoken with are also excited about the recent purchase of a significant historical property, the W.A. Stuart house. This was the home of the brother of Civil War General J. E. B. Stuart, and over the years it has suffered from lack of attention. Now, a new owner who restores old houses, Michelle Bowers, has plans to bring it back to life and live in the home part time. Residents of Saltville welcome the newcomer and the potential national attention her project could bring.

Perhaps the most ambitious element of the Town of Saltville’s future plans is the construction of a campground and RV park bordering the Salt Ponds. Presently, Saltville offers few accommodation options, so the park would be a major addition with RV hookup sites, tent camping, rental cabins and yurts. It is a major undertaking, needing funding, but the town already owns the land. Brian foresees the campground providing visitors to Saltville with the perfect location for exploring all the outdoor attractions in the area. It sounds like a great weekend or week-long trip in my motorhome!

Brian and many others are promoting the tremendous variety of activities already on hand in Saltville, Va. The potential is great for this “hidden gem” to be a desirable outdoor destination for travelers from within and outside Virginia, while maintaining its off-the-beaten-path, small-town charm. The Town of Saltville will not only surprise but also delight visitors, today and for years to come.

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