Bluegrass Valley to Saltville

My mission today was to follow the North Fork of the Holston River traveling southwest through the Bluegrass Valley to Saltville on Rt. 42. Here is what the Virginia Division of Wildlife Resources says about the North Fork below Saltville, “From the town of Saltville downstream there is an exceptional smallmouth bass fishery. It routinely produces smallmouth up to five pounds. Sunfish, rockbass, carp, and channel catfish fishing are also good. This river is still under a health advisory from mercury contamination. Fishing is allowed, but the fish must not be consumed.”

“Population samples collected in 2003 and 2004 revealed very good numbers of smallmouth in several sections of the river. Trophy smallmouth bass were collected in most of the sections sampled. Smallmouth abundance is about average compared to other Virginia rivers. However, the proportion of smallmouths from 14 to 18-inches long is much higher than in most other rivers. Sunfish, channel catfish, flathead catfish, carp, and suckers were also collected. A couple of new angler access sites have been developed near the town of Saltville.”

Sounds like the beautiful Shenandoah River, where mercury spills contaminated the river for the next 100 years, so I wanted to see if it is floatable above Saltville. The short answer is it is not floatable except in the spring when the water will likely be muddy. Wading the river would might be productive in some spots, but it isn’t very deep in the areas I saw. Certainly, it is not easily fishable. It travels through farmland where access may not be available. It is certainly beautiful country.

I arrived in Saltville tired and a bit disappointed in the North Fork. I needed a coffee and did a quick Google search, which pointed me to a place I couldn’t find. I pulled into a parking place in the middle of town, and. a place called The Lily Pad caught my eye. I walked in the tiny shop in this town of 2,000, ordering a coffee from the young girl at the register. A “Hi” came from a table in the shadows. I hadn’t noticed the woman sitting there. “Hello” I answered, exchanging comments on the nice day. She got up to help the girl, making a new pot since it was now 11:00, and she sent the girl across the street to get something. I looked around as the coffee brewed. She had won an award for her mission of building a new image of Tazewell. I thanked her very much for the big cup of coffee, freshly brewed and left a tip.

I sat on a bench outside the door and took a sip. Mmmm, excellent. A big surprise. A couple of gentlemen parked in front and said hello as they walked past. Then two workmen who looked like they spent the better part of their days working out, came in for lunch. I was going to go back in and compliment the lady about the coffee, but two more went in the small shop.

I had read a few things about Saltville, and how there were two Civil War battles here. As its name implies, they supplied the troops with salt, and essential ingredient for health, but also for curing meats in those days. It was the South’s only source of salt. I had also read something about a museum. Across the street, I saw an orange Woolly Mammoth. To the right was a building that looked like an old theater, called Museum of the Middle Appalachians.

In front of me were railroad tracks that had been partly paved-over. Following them down to the right led to what was likely an old train station that was converted to a park. Next to that was an old train.

I moseyed across the street to see the orange mammoth, then decided to go in the museum. A nice, smiling lady told me the tour was $5, or $3 for seniors. I have her $5. She led a couple and myself inside, pausing to note a mastodon tusk in front of the door. She led us to a very large, glassed replica of Saltville and the surrounding mountains. There were signs all around it with buttons that light up the spot described. It was a lot to take in. I thought it was all about salt mining, but there is a lot more. There were the two battles, the first won by the South, the second by the North.

Of course there is the history of mining salt, then a chemical company that ends up with a big spill, forever contaminating the area. The government made rocket fuel here. All kinds of crazy stories evolve when money and power are involved. The interesting part to me was what was here thousands of years ago. All animals enjoy a salt lick, and this is a huge salt lick. The unique part is a bog with three big lakes and several smaller ones. Several seeps lead to salt washing into these ponds. 14,000 – 11,000 years ago Clovis Indians came here to hunt. In fact many Indians came to hunt and camp where Mastodons and Woolly Mammoths were attracted to the salt. Deer and Elk would also be attracted. There are signs of the Short-Faced Bear that stood 5’5″ on all fours. Remains of Moose and Giant Ground Sloths have been found, along with saber-toothed cats, giant beaver, musk ox and proboscideans, or elephant-like animals. The salt has preserved the remains of these animals. Amazing, simply amazing, and the excavations continue.

Proboscidean skeleton against a painting of what it looked like with a mastodon skull overhead

“In June of 1917 the Mathieson Alkali Works’ brine well No. 69 experienced a collapse that exposed a number of fossil bones. Scientists from the Carnegie Museum were sent to evaluate the fossils and report on the results. Excavations in the area have taken place since then with many special finds now housed at the Gray Fossil Site and Museum in Tennessee and in the Museum of the Middle Appalachians in Saltville.” From:

Around the corner is section on the Civil War. I passed through this part and went to the Native American section. The whole section of necklaces was very impressive. Here we are very far west and there were all kinds of things they did with conch shells that probably came from the Gulf of Mexico or Florida. Intricate artistic bowls were made along with jewelry.

By then I was getting tired, so I breezed through the salt mining part, but like most good museums, you can’t do it all in one visit. Another very interesting part of this area is there is a huge geologic fault running through it. “For millions of years, cycles of compression, uplift, and erosion have worked to create a complex system of ridges that are among the oldest in North America.” This is a very cool museum, a total surprise for me. Visit:

I left a donation in the box and walked around the town a bit. Then I took a tour of the ponds, finding a nice walkway behind the ponds, but didn’t walk it all. I also didn’t look at the river past Saltville, but know it’s floatable since the salt was originally floated downriver on rafts.

I drove back up the valley on 91 and 42, stopping to take some pictures along the way. I especially like the shack beside the river, wonderfully staged probably by the family across the street. The Bluegrass Valley is another lovely valley in this beautiful part of the state.

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