Malden was the commercial center of Western Virginia’s richest and most industrialized region in the early 19th century. This part of the Kanawha Valley was first known as Terra Salis and then Kanawha Salines, names taken from the underground brine deposits that were developed into a salt industry from 1810 until after the Civil War. Daniel Boone and others produced salt there in the 1790s. America’s first deep well was drilled for salt brine in 1808 by the Ruffner family.
Malden was created as a New England style village called Salt borough in the 1830s, when the Ruffners subdivided and sold lots east of their saltworks at today’s Port Amherst. In 1840, the landmark Kanawha Salines Presbyterian Church was constructed by a congregation that had been organized in 1819 by Dr. Henry Ruffner. By 1850, Malden had several hotels, a bank, and many saloons. There were fine houses for the saltmakers and many small houses for the white and black workers in their saltworks. In the 1880s, the town was incorporated as Malden. The origin of the name is not known.
African-American families, well before the Civil War, organized a Baptist congregation in 1852. Gen. Lewis Ruffner helped finance construction of their African Zion Baptist Church in 1872, where Booker T. Washington was church secretary and a lifelong member. In 1865, Washington, at age nine and released from slavery, had come with his family to work in the salt industry and local coal mines. Race relations in the Kanawha salt works were remarkable for any state south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Workers were paid based on the work produced without regard to race. They were not segregated at work or in the housing provided near the saltworks.
Today, the African Zion Baptist Church, with a model of Washington’s Freedom Cabin constructed nearby, and the salt makers’ fine Kanawha Salines Presbyterian Church stand as landmarks to diversity and hard work among the many historic structures in Malden. In 1980 much of the community was listed as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places.
Read the National Register nomination.
This Article was written by Larry L. Rowe
Last Revised on January 30, 2013