Shown in this 1968 photo is one of the Civil War saltpeter (saltpetre) hoppers in Greenbrier County’s Organ Cave. The dirt in the cave is high in nitrite as a result of bat guano and percolating groundwater. The hoppers are used to leach the nitrite producing saltpeter that in turn is treated with potassium salts from wood ashes to produce gun power. This method of making gun power was not new. In the 7th century, the Chinese used it to make fireworks. Mining saltpeter was not pleasant work. In some of the larger caves, like Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, slaves were used as miners.
There is some indication that Thomas Jefferson may have used Organ Cave in the late 1700s to produce saltpeter. Also, the cave may have supplied the United States Army with saltpeter during the War of 1812. During the Civil War, Organ Cave was an important source of saltpeter for the Confederacy. The privately-owned cave is a National Natural Landmark and opened to the public for tours.
Men who served in the military or went to boarding schools may recall rumors that saltpeter was added to their meals to dampen carnal urges. These were myths that were perpetuated for many years. Nitrites, however, are used in food as a preservative though less so now since they are linked to cancer.
Photo: Courtesy of West Virginia University Regional History Center.
Sources: National Park Service, Virginia Minerals, Caves and Karst of the Greenbrier Valley by William B. White, The Settlement Of The Greater Greenbrier Valley, West Virginia by Fred Ziegler, McGill University Office of Science and Society.