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Science Tribune - Article - October 1998


The Onondaga New York Salt Works (1654 - 1926)

Valerie Jackson Bell

Curator, Onondaga County Office of Museums, P.O. Box 146, Liverpool, NY 13088, U.S.A.
Tel: (315) 453.6767; Fax: (315) 453 6762
E-mail : prewiso@emi.com

Historical background

In many parts of the world salt was a highly valued commodity. However, in the region now known as Central New York, the native peoples, the Iroquois, knew nothing of its properties. Unknown to them a source of salt was bubbling out of the ground on the shore of a small lake in the center of their territory. The bitter tasting water to them represented evil.

In 1654, when the first Europeans arrived, they saw not evil, but another source of wealth in the New World. The French Jesuit priest, Father Simon LeMoyne, was shown to springs by the Onondaga Iroquois leaders. He wrote back to his superiors of the discovery. "We arrived at the entrance to a little lake in a basin half dried up, and taste (sic) the water from a spring of which the people dare not drink, as they say that there is an evil spirit in it that renders it foul. Upon tasting it I found it to be a spring of salt water; and indeed we made some salt from it, as natural as that which comes from the sea, and are carrying a sample of it to Quebec." (1) The French returned to the area in 1656 to build a mission on the shores of the lake and began to produce the first salt that would later supply an entire nation and create a city known as the Salt City.

During the brief existence of the mission (1656-1658), the French undoubtedly instructed the local Onondaga how to boil down the brine and in the various uses of salt. After the French abandoned the area other European explorers and fur trappers, including the naturalist John Bartram, passed through the area and noted the salt springs. By 1774 two escaped black slaves living with the Iroquois were producing a small quantity of salt they sold to trappers for preserving beaver pelts. Sir William Johnson purchased some land containing salt springs from the Iroquois to hold them for the British crown, however, he never pursued the production of salt. The powerful Iroquois restricted the general settlement of the area, and it was not until after the American Revolution that settlers were able to begin entering the territory of the Iroquois, weakened by disease.

In 1788 the Onondaga, one of the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, transferred by treaty some 20,000 acres around the lake to the State of New York on condition "that it shall remain forever, for the common benefit of the people of the State of New York and the Onondagas for the purpose of making salt"(2). Although there is some question about the legality of a state entering into a treaty with another nation (and the Iroquois are still considered sovereign nations), the treaty was maintained. Land speculation saw some lands pass into private hands, but by means of various laws and ordinances the salt springs came under control of the State of New York. The area became known as the New York State Salt Springs Reservation and is, for the most part, still controlled by a governmental entity. The salt deposits have long since been depleted and much of the Reservation is now a public park.

The first two men to commercially exploit the salt springs were Asa Danforth and Comfort Tyler, Revolutionary War veterans who settled on land given to them in lieu of salary by the newly formed government of the United States. They arrived in the year 1788 and immediately began to exploit the salt resource. Danforth records that in his first attempt at making salt he used a 15 gallon (57 liter) kettle and in 9 hours he had boiled down about 30 pounds (66 kg) of salt (3).

c1900 painting by George Kasson Knapp of Comfort Tyler and Asa Danforth
boiling their first batch of salt on the shores of Onondaga Lake in 1788
(Photograph courtesy of Onondaga Historical Association, Syracuse, New York.)

Soon there were many men involved in the production of salt. By 1791, 8000 bushels (one bushel was calculated at approximately 56 pounds (35 l)) of salt per year were produced (4). The average salinity of the brine during the 19th century was recorded at 74-78 (5).

The legality of the use of the salt springs was in question as many of the people producing salt held no lease or ownership to the land and were, in fact, squatters. The State, wishing to prevent a private salt monopoly from developing and looking for a steady source of revenue, began to seek ways of controlling the resource. Salt seemed like it could be a good revenue source. The first legislation concerning the salt springs was passed on April 1, 1797. At this point the State took oversight of salt production. In order to maintain their lease-hold, lessees were required to make a minimum of 10 bushels (352 liters) of salt each year for every kettle or pan used and to pay the State 4 cents per bushel of salt they produced. The State set the price of salt, required that salt be stored for a fee in State warehouses until sold and the State inspected and certified the quality and quantity of all salt produced. There was no actual charge for the brine, just for the finished product. A Salt Superintendent was appointed by the Governor to oversee the Reservation (6). While the legislation appeared to be well organized in theory, it encountered all the problems inherent in bureaucracies and all the temptations associated with large sums of money. Neglect and fraud were common in the early years. With the passage of improved regulations and a series of more conscientious Superintendents, the standards of production and the resulting quality of salt improved. By 1825 the State assumed control of the large reservoirs and pumphouses needed on the salt reservation for production.


The commercial production of salt in North America closely followed those of English production. Brine pumped from wells settled in shallow pools or cisterns to filter out some of the impurities. The brine was then further rendered by boiling to produce salt crystals. The brine in the Central New York region was extremely saline. Bartram reported in 1743 that one gallon (3.785 l) of water could be boiled down to one pound (454 g) of salt (7)..

1. The boiling method

At first all the brine came from naturally occurring springs or shallow wells dug into swampy lands on the lake shore. The first deep well was sunk in 1806 and is recorded to have been 30 feet (9 m) deep. Pumping of the brine to the surface was first done by means of hand pumps, which could produce about 40 gallons (approx. 151 l) per minute. In the 1890's a new system was developed for pumping the brine from deep wells using compressed air. This method produced about 150-160 gallons (568 l) of brine per minute from wells approximately 100 feet (30 m) deep. At the peak of production there were 30 wells in active operation (5).

Brine pumped from wells flowed into small settling tanks, from the tank the brine was conducted through wooden log pipes to a central distribution point, usually located at an elevation higher than the boiling blocks so that flow could be controlled by gravity. If the central storage area was lower than some of the boiling blocks or solar fields the brine had to be pumped into a large reservoir located at the top of a 80 foot (24.4 m) tower-like structure situated on adjacent high ground. From this tower the brine was distributed to the various manufactories. The pump in this operation was driven by an immense overshot water wheel. The wheel was 22 feet (6.7 m) in diameter. A back-up steam pump was available in case of break-down. The pump operated from May 1 to December 1, depending on weather conditions as the wheel could not operate once the canal froze. Boiled salt was produced as long as the water wheel turned.

Boiling was the preferred method of production because it was rapid and could be carried out all year and in most types of weather, a factor of considerable importance at such a northern latitude. The boiling blocks consisted of large iron kettles set into stonework and arranged in a double row the entire length of the building.

Graphic of boiling block

The largest kettles held 150 gallons (568 l) and were located nearest to the firing pit. A long flue ran the entire length of the building to a tall chimney on the far end. Near the chimney, where the heat was less intense the kettles were smaller, approximately 100 gallons (378 l). The Blocks contained up to 78 kettles and operated 24 hours a day. At first they burned hundreds of cords of wood per day. Later when the wood supply dwindled, 11 to 12 tons of coal per day were needed to keep the fire roaring.

The kettles boiled down two or three times every 24 hours. Iron oxides and calcium chlorides that settled to the bottom were removed. The salt crystals formed on the surface where workmen skimmed them off with a long handled scoop. The wet salt was placed into splint ash baskets to drain.

Interior of a boiling block. The men labored in intense heat
of over 120 Fahrenheit (49 C). Note baskets of wet salt
(From the collection of the Onondaga County Parks Office of Museums).

State regulations required that all salt be stored for 14 days in order to dry out. It was then packed into barrels for shipment. Barrels were tested by a State Inspector to make sure they contained pure salt and that it was properly dried. Boiled salt was referred to as Fine Salt.

2. The solar method

By the 1820's the local supply of wood had been exhausted. The cost of importing coal from Pennsylvania was pricing Onondaga salt out of the market. Many of the companies began to convert to the solar evaporation method. This method was slower and wet weather could spell disaster. But it was cost effective and by 1864 solar reduction had become the primary means of salt production. Large areas along the lake shore were set aside for salt fields. Solar salt could only be produced from May into early November.

As described by Dr. David Stolz (6), the solar method incorporated three phases: the brine was first pumped through log pipes into deep vats where the iron oxides and casox settled out. The tanks in these rooms averaged 18 feet (5.5 m) wide and 12 inches (30 cm) deep, they could run from 200 feet (60 m) to 2,000 feet in length, depending on the size of the yard. This process took about 2 weeks. The brine then passed through a number of shallow vats where lime and gypsum settled out and the sun and wind reduced the brine further. This took approximately 10 days.

View of log pipes. Solar yards can be seen in the background. Taken 1880.
(From the collection of the Onondaga County Parks Office of Museums.)

The concentrated brine was then transferred into shallow wooden trays approximately 3 inches (7.6 cm) deep. These were commonly referred to as covers because of the movable wooden roof-like structure that could cover the brine during rain and at night. At the first sign of rain a bell was sounded and men, women and even children rushed out to the salt yards to push the covers over the brine. Some yards contained up to 15,000 covers that had to be pushed. It is reported that it could be done in a matter of minutes. The brine was exposed for 2 sunny days. Once crystals formed, they were broken up and pushed to the edge of the cover where the salt was transferred to carts for transport to storage warehouses.

Graphic of solar salt sheds

In 1900 there were approximately 43,000 covers with an evaporating surface of over 12,000,000 square feet (75,757 hectares). A good season could produce from 3 to 4 million bushels of salt, the number of gallons of brine required to produce a bushel of salt, including by-products, ranged from 30 to 60 gallons depending on source.

1880's view of solar evaporation pans. Note "covers" rolled back
to take advantage of the sun. The salt is draining in half barrels with
holes drilled in base to allow moisture out. In the background, left,
some small well houses can be seen. The two chimney stacks
are associated with boiling blocks.

(From the collection of the Onondaga County Parks Office of Museums.)

End of an era

However, the industry was beginning to decline. In the West large deposits of salt had been discovered and the salinity of the local brine was weakening. Costs kept rising for both the manufacture and transport of the finished product. By 1908 the State of New York auctioned off its pipelines, reservoirs and pumping machinery though they did continue to employ a Salt Springs Superintendent who reported to the State Legislature until 1914. For all practical purposes the manufacture of salt now lay in private hands, although some of the land continued to be held by the State.

By 1920 most of the salt produced was used to pack fish, in ceramic production, to de-ice the railroad and trolley tracks and for use by the chemical companies that were replacing the old salt manufactories along the shore of Onondaga Lake. In 1922 a wind storm left much of the remaining salt yards in ruins. Some repairs were made and the industry struggled along until August 1926, when the last nine salt workers drew the final batch of brine and the industry closed completely.

The rotting salt covers, crumbling buildings and an unused canal became a dumping ground for trash. Strangely it was the Great Depression that brought new life to the abandoned area. Then Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned the State land over to Onondaga County. With funding through the Work Relief Bureau, the County turned the area into a park. Included in the project was the construction of a museum built around a still standing Boiling Block chimney. In 1933 the Salt Museum opened and continues to this day to tell the story of how salt created Syracuse, a town nicknamed The Salt City.


1. Reuben Gold Thwaites (ed) The Jesuit Relations, 1610-1791 Vol 41. Burrows Co, 1898.

2. Getman A. Principles and sources of title to real property as between the state and the individual, the relative rights of the individual. Matthew Bender & Co, 1918.

3. Murphy J. History of the salt industry in Onondaga County, New York (unpublished Masters thesis, Syracuse University, 1939).

4. Beauchamp W. (ed) Moravian journals relating to Central New York 1745-1766, Dehler Press, 1917.

5. State of New York Senate Journals, 1777-1832. 1832

6. Stolz D. A review of the salt industry at Syracuse, New York from a practical point of view (unpublished Ph.D dissertation, Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, 1903).

7. Bartram J. Observations on the Inhabitants, Climate, Soil, Rivers, Productions. Animals, and other matters worthy of Notice. Whiston & White, 1751 [UMI, 1979]