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Mountains on the Market: Industry, the Environment, and the South

Author(s):Hall, Randal L.
Reviewer(s):Reback, Charles

Published by EH.Net (January 2013)

Randal L. Hall, Mountains on the Market: Industry, the Environment, and the South. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2012. vii + 288 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8131-3624-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Charles Reback, College of Business, University of South Carolina Upstate
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In Mountains on the Market: Industry, the Environment, and the South, Randal L. Hall provides a nuanced interpretation of 250 years of Southern economic development, adding to the large literature correcting the misconception of the South as a pre-capitalist, slow-moving, agrarian society.? Using the New River valley of southwestern Virginia as a microcosm for American and Southern history, he shows us how the unrelenting pursuit of profits led to the exploitation of the region?s natural resources despite its geographic isolation, lack of transportation infrastructure, and small population.? He details the rise of industrial capitalism in the mid eighteenth century, its pinnacle in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, its decline in the mid to late twentieth, and finally the recent rise of the service economy.? Additionally, he details how from the very beginning wealthy Southern planters invested in industries and locations far from their agrarian roots.

Industry came to the New River valley soon after John Chiswell?s discovery of lead in the region in the 1750s.? Along with several partners, all of whom were successful Virginia planters and members of the political, social, and economic elite, he formed the Lead Mining Company and began operations in 1761. They hired a professional manager from England, Welsh miners, and soon brought black slaves to work in the mines.? In addition to mining lead, during the American Revolution the region began mining saltpeter for gunpowder. By the 1780s iron was being mined on a small scale.? At the turn of the nineteenth century the mines were a complex society of English and Welsh immigrants, slaves, convict laborers, and families.? Soon the state began building roads to ease transportation problems.

The first half of the nineteenth century saw these family businesses evolve into corporations with the increasing complexity of the mining business.? Productivity began to improve, resulting in higher wages. While these lead mines prospered, other regions of the country were growing even more rapidly. By 1840 other states, notably Wisconsin, Illinois, and Missouri, outproduced Virginia?s New River valley by a wide margin.? Iron mining continued and the mid 1850s saw a regional copper boom fueled by speculators from East Tennessee.? Transportation improved in the 1840s and 50s with several state-built turnpikes, and the arrival of the railroad in 1854.? Businessmen cast a wider net for profits than just extractive industries and several local investors diversified their holdings by starting Grayson Sulfur Springs resort on the banks of the New River.? By the 1850s the New River valley had a thriving middle class.

In general the New River valley was pro-secession, probably sensing increased business opportunities in arming and outfitting the South.? After the Civil War the region?s economy was as dynamic as the rest of the nation.? Northern companies came to dominate local industries. Lead mining continued as the dominant industry but iron prospered as well.? Iron production peaked between 1880 and 1900, as the iron?s high sulfur content made it well suited to be used for wheels.? Around 1900 new technologies rendered the iron uncompetitive and production ceased by 1920.? The copper mines ceased production by 1875 as the veins of ore played out.? The 1880s saw additional railroad lines and further integration into national markets.? By 1900 the textile industry moved in, attracted by abundant water power and a low wage work force.??

At the dawn of the twentieth century the New River valley continued its evolution away from purely extractive industries.? Hydroelectric power and chemicals ? sulfuric acid and carbide ? became significant industries, but the area never truly made the transition to high skilled work.? In 1890s the high sulfur content of the iron ore made chemical industries take notice and they began manufacturing sulfuric acid, used in making fertilizer and explosives.? These operated until 1977.? However, evolution continued within the extractive industries.? Zinc, used in making brass, paints, cosmetics, and in galvanizing iron, began to be mined, continuing production until 1981.? In 1985 the railroad stopped, dismantling the track to be used in the Midwest.? By the late 1980s the textile mills were gone as well, relocating to low-wage developing nations, much as a century earlier they had moved to the South from New England.

The twentieth century also saw major changes in the lives of workers.? Company towns grew.? Productivity gains enabled wages to increase. Companies began offering amenities and benefits to the workers, coped with the rise of unions and with the changes and requirements of the New Deal.

Hall concludes with the New River valley?s participation in the post-industrial service economy.? Focusing on tourism, the area is repurposing abandoned mills and factories and trying to capitalize on its natural beauty and local ?hillbilly? music and culture. Unfortunately, past industries have left a legacy of environmental problems and numerous Superfund sites.?

In conclusion, Randal Hall provides a well-researched and well-written economic history of southwestern Virginia.? The book includes several appendices, detailing the evolution of the industrial technologies used in the New River valley.? Anyone with an interest in Southern history, Appalachian history, business history, or extractive industries should read this book.

Charles Reback is an associate professor of finance and economics in the Johnson College of Business at the University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg, SC.? He is the author of ?Merger for Monopoly: The Formation of the United States Steel Corporation? in Essays in Economic and Business History (2007) and the co-author (with Neil Canaday) of ?Race, Literacy, and Real Estate Transactions in the Postbellum South? in the Journal of Economic History (June 2010).? He is currently researching the Southern Homestead Act of 1866.
creback@uscupstate.edu
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Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII