Friday, July 30, 2010

Day 224/365 Digging For Dinosaurs

Last fieldtrip for the summer (at least for me).....

...and we're off at 4:30 am on a huge bus filled with kids and staff on the narrow overgrown mountain roads of southwestern Virginia .... Saltville, Virginia (The Salt Capitol of the Confederacy). Check out those Appalachian Mountains -through the mist you can see the higher peaks behind them. This is more or less my family's old stomping grounds. Down here the accents are thicker and more mountain-ish, rather than those lowland accents, just like my grandparents.

The obligatory cannon - found in most small Southern towns -just like the Confederate statue found in front of most most Southern courthouses (our town just replaced ours on account of some guy lost control and ran into it with his pickup truck. Funny how years of civil rights and societal pressure couldn't do it, but a Chevy S10 could.)

Latest addition to my personal list of favorite tiny libraries: the Saltville Public Library. Love the three sided steps. It sits right next door to....

..our destination: The Museum of the Middle Appalachians.

The high points of the history of Saltville. Above is its claim to fame. Salt. Two hundred feet under the town lies a salt bed almost a mile deep. In prehistoric times animals flocked here for the salt, making animal trails that the various successive Native American tribes later used. Once a deep salty lake, fed by two springs, the deep water gradually fell to form smaller marshy lakes. In the 1700's, the Governor of Virginia, Patrick Henry (of "Give me liberty or give me death fame"), deeded this area to his two sisters. As the salt lakes rose and fell, various fossils and prehistoric bones were picked up, with more than a few being sent to Thomas Jefferson, who among his other accomplishments, was an amateur paleontologist.

Eventually the lakes were drained, and the first of the commercial salt wells were dug. There is no such thing as a salt mine in Saltville. Instead, water is injected through pipes to dissolve the salt. the water is pumped back up, and when it evaporates, it leaves the salt. Most table salt is produced this way. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee no matter who you are, you've consumed some salt from Saltville Virginia within the last week. Semi-loads leave almost on the hour, everyhour, twenty-four hours a day, full of salt destined for every major food producer in the U.S.

At any rate -our kids descended on the Museum, which was entertaining and gracious, and full of Saltville's history...

from mastodons found in the salt wellfield ...

...almost perfectly preserved (cause salt will do that. Remember that the next time you dump that shaker on your food.).... the Cherokee necklaces, bowls and pipes (this may be a clue why my great great grandparents came back here instead of exploring the "Trail of Tears" option)... the original Smyth County Guards Flag from the Civil War (one of my gr-gr's fought in this unit - how cool to get to see the flag- didn't even know it existed)...

...and of course Civil War sabers, currency, pistols, and muskets (repeating rifles???)'s all here. Even personal accounts of life in a company town. I'm not sure if company towns up north were the same, but in the Appalachians, particularily in mining communities, company towns were a mixed blessing.

Saltville seems to be one of the ones that really prospered under the system. Short version: big company provides 90% of jobs in a community, and the other 10% are peripheral to the success of that company (storeowners for example).

In Saltville's case, Mathieson Alkali not only provided jobs, but hundreds of company houses,in addition to schools, a hospital and healthcare, roads and social events.

They paid their workers in company script - running a tab, and then settling up on payday. The example above shows an employee paycheck for 25 cents in script, the remainder after his tab was tallied. Of course, since the company owned the stores and the bank, it essentially controlled where the paycheck was spent, thus eliminating competition. One must also remember that this was a remote mountain community (and still is in some ways), and the closest store or school, was a minimum of eight miles away, via poor roads, and for a long time, horseback. The closest hospital was much much further. So Saltville became a paradise of sorts.

At least until 1982, when it was declared a Superfund site, because the Mathieson Company had spent years discharging -by it's own estimate- up to 100 pounds a day of methyl mercury into the soil and North fork of the Holston River. (Appalachian corporate history could well serve as the dictionary definition of the word rape. It continues today, rampant and unashamed, just one long gangbang of what was a breathtaking mountainrange. And that's definitely another blog.)
The salt wellfield today. One of the very few places in the world where freshwater plants and saltwater plants grow side-by-side, because the lakes are fed by springs that percolate through the salt beds below the surface.

Saltwater-loving Swamp mallow that grows wild along the shores of the salt wellfield lake (part of the hibiscus family, comes in pink and white).

Of course, it being 90 degrees and blindingly hot, our campers decided to walk the trail around the lakes. Of course.

And this is where the paleontology dig sites are. For all of you dreaming of going into archeology or paleontology, ala Indiana Jones... this is what it really looks like. Deep greyish clay pits, that are constantly being pumped out, because the water table is high enough that the pit refills. The high tech equipment is basically a garden trowel, and every inch of this clay will be moved a trowelful at a time, looking for prehistoric bones. One of the students had the job of balling up handfuls of discarded clay and throwing it up to the opposite side. By the end of the summer, she'll be pitching no-hitters for the Yankees.

Everything they've found that day is in that ziploc bag. Gallon size. Apparently being an archealogist or paleontolist is more than just dodging Nazi's and looking good in a fedora. Who knew?

We were told unofficially that the day before these experts had found *something big* in this dig site, and they had called in outside even-bigger experts to help identify the big something, so we can only assume they were guarding the site and killing time when we walked by.

The result of the finding-of-the-big-something is that our kids (originally meant to be digging in that watery dark grey clay pit) were re-directed to a substitute site.

None of them were fooled. Nevertheless since mud, water, and digging trowels were offered, they did their best to pretend it was a real site.

I mean really...mud is mud....and kids are kids....Peace out.


  1. Informative and interesting, as always, Carole! I am so bummed that there were no Nazis or fedoras involved though!

  2. Carole - Great post! Thank you for sharing your adventures while we are stuck not adventuring!:) Have traveled Virginia highways 2x - breathtaking views, we would love to go back. Between the scenery & the history of the land & people, we are blessed that you are so willing to be our travel guide!

  3. Awesome!! I am going to have to take the boys up there, they're dino-obsessed!!!! :D