Saltville, Virginia: A Company Town Without a Company
In 1971, the Olin chemical company pulled out of Saltville, leaving the tiny town to fend for itself.
The town of Saltville looks a lot like it did 40 years ago. Nestled in the tree-covered hills of southwestern Virginia just a few miles from bustling Interstate 81, Saltville is an idyllic small town. Its streets are lined with churches and modest one- and two-story brick buildings.
Years ago, Saltville was a company town. If you lived in Saltville, you probably worked at the plant owned by the chemical conglomerate, Olin. And if you didn’t work at the plant, then you worked at the company store, the company bank, the company hospital or the school built by the company. Olin owned and operated almost everything in Saltville. The mayor and town council worked for Olin, and its employees ran the town’s water and sewer system, picked up the trash and, if the town’s budget ran in the red at the end of the fiscal year, wrote a check to cover the deficit.
Olin workers even lived in company-built homes. “You could tell who lived in a house by its size,” says town resident June Totten, the daughter of former Mayor W. J. Totten. “A one-floor house, which rented for $10 a month, was for the poorest workers. Two-floor homes, which rented for $25 a month, went to the better paid workers.” The company’s paternalism was so extensive that it did everything from fixing broken window screens and painting the high school football stadium to providing free medical care for everyone in town. “It was a good company to work for,” says Buddy Cahill, a former Olin maintenance worker, now 82 years old.
Saltville was named for the salt marshes in the area, and it was salt that Olin extracted to make soda ash, a product used in a variety of manufacturing processes. The plant and the town flourished during the first half of the 20th century, but by the 1960s, things were changing. Pollution from the plant had become a problem, and was poisoning the nearby North Fork of the Holston River. Virginia’s Water Control Board and the newly formed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enacted regulations to force the company to clean it up. At the same time, cheaper soda ash was coming from the West, and tensions between the company and the workers’ newly formed union were rising -- leading to at least one major strike. In response, the company began to divest itself of some of the services it provided the town, and in 1971, Olin announced it was closing the plant down.
Today, Saltville is not a company town. Talk to people who remember it as one, and they recall an era when Olin and the town had an intimate, almost familial coexistence. They also remember Saltville at the time of the plant’s closing, when shock and anxiety permeated the small town of 2,199. Workers worried that they wouldn’t be able to find another job. Many had worked for Olin for decades and only had a sixth- or seventh-grade education. Buddy Cahill eventually got a job in construction. A few dozen workers took up the company’s offer and moved to a different plant in a different state. Many simply retired. Newspaper articles from the 1970s describe a town determined to start over but troubled by an uptick in drinking, health problems and even a few suicides.
Despite predictions of a dying town, however, Saltville remained stable -- its population is just above 2,200 today. Once very reliant on the company to run the government, Saltville’s elected officials are now on their own. “After 1972, the town had to change its tax base and change into a public entity,” says Mike Taylor, the town manager.
It also had to find a new employer. In the 40 years since the plant closed, three major businesses have moved into Saltville. Taking advantage of the minerals in the area, the largest salt-water fish hatchery on the East Coast operates from here, and a company called Spectra Energy is storing vast amounts of America’s newly abundant energy, natural gas, in the underground salt caverns. To just about everyone’s delight, a firm has once again started extracting the town’s most famous product, shipping out tons of sodium chloride by truck every day.
Evidence of government investment in Saltville is easy to see. In addition to the economic development, a well maintained park with trails and fishing has replaced salt ponds in the town center. But there are still challenges too. Some residents complain about the quality of services provided by the town government. Others worry about the decline in the numbers of young people who live there -- the high school once enrolled more than 600 students, and today, is down to less than 300.
Saltville’s history is on display in the downtown Museum of the Middle Appalachians. “If our window broke, the company fixed it. If we needed coal, the company brought it,” reads one photo caption. But also on display is the high cost of being a company town. Museum Manager Harry R. Haynes says Olin has spent $100 million over the past 40 years trying to clean up the pollution left by its plant. Hundreds of acres remain fenced off and out of bounds. Signs along the North Fork of the Holston River caution against eating the fish. It’s one of the legacies the town must bear for years to come. Because of it, Haynes says, “Saltville became known nationwide as the town ecology shut down.”