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From Free Salt to a Major Industry

Becky Bartholomew
History Blazer, March 1996

In pioneer Utah salt was free for the taking. A family had only to drive out to Great Salt Lake’s south shore (a bridge spanned the Jordan River after 1848) and shovel raw salt into a wagon. In a few places it came off the ground pure enough for table use, but most of it had to be boiled down. Four barrels of sand typically produced one barrel of refined salt.

Probably the first salt manufacturer was Charley White, who from 1850 to 1860 ran a boiling operation below the south point of Antelope Island. By the 1870s a number of small companies mined the south shore. The period 1880 to 1900 saw twenty such enterprises. Inland Salt Company, organized by James Jack (treasurer of the Mormon church) sent half of its crude salt to Utah and Montana silver mines and refined the rest for food use. But the 1893 depression closed many mines and caused salt prices to drop. This signaled the end of the era of small operations. Inland was bought out by Midwestern investors. In 1889 another locally owned company, Intermountain, united with Inland until Inland emerged as the market leader. Eventually Inland acquired Royal Crystal.

Royal’s salt works stood 14.5 miles from downtown Salt Lake, about a mile east and slightly south of Saltair resort where present I-80’s route out of Salt Lake City curves slightly to follow the lake shore. Beginning about 1905 a village of 40 employee houses surrounded the plant. Other workers commuted from Garfield or rode the Salt Lake & Garfield Electric Railroad which serviced the resort and Inland’s spur.

From "In & About SLC the Mormon Paradise" by W. A. Morton, 1910

From “In & About SLC the Mormon Paradise” by W. A. Morton, 1910

 

Royal/Inland commanded Utah’s salt industry through its modern refinery, extensive pond system, and aggressive expansion efforts. In 1915 Inland bought Diamond Salt, and stories persist of strong-arm tactics against smaller companies—mainly vandalism and price controls. Inland’s first real competitor arrived on the scene in 1918 when Morton Salt leased a potash plant at Burmeister and gradually turned it over to salt production. Morton gained a controlling interest in 1922 by buying out Inland’s owners.

In 1928 the Royal/Inland plant burned down. This gave Morton the opportunity to acquire Inland’s remaining stock and make Saltair its refinery for both the Morton and Royal Crystal brands. Morton and Royal continued to have separate sales and management staffs, although Royal handled both payrolls.

The new plant stood three miles closer to downtown, right on the Western Pacific rail line. With 200 workers it was busy. Several miles north (and a mile into the lake) huge pumps sucked lake water into massive wooden flumes that stood far enough above the lake level to gravity feed hundreds of square miles of ponds south of the plant. Each pond was left to evaporate throughout the summer. An alkali crust formed on its surface which eventually grew heavy enough to settle to the bottom. The pond would be reflooded and another crust would form, sink, and thicken the bottom layer. At summer’s end the pond was drained and harvested by hand because the clay mud would not hold up heavy machinery.

In 1929, when the stock market crashed, a period of austerity set in. Workers were cut back to four-day weeks. In 1933 Royal Crystal finally combined with Morton, which cut back its Burmeister operation. This period brought both major and minor changes in production techniques. Workers invented many improvements in salt-packing equipment. Tractors used at the Burmeister potash plant were re-engineered to replace men and shovels in harvesting the salt ponds. In 1936 larger scoops were added to the tractors, which were named “Hootin’ Nannys.” Later, these would be replaced by “Jackrabbits,” built more like automobiles, and still later by “Scoopmobiles,” which were larger and more powerful tractors. In 1964 combines came into use.

In 1949 the Saltair plant burned down again, to be rebuilt the following year. In 1950 Royal Crystal Company was dissolved following antitrust action. Morton, which throughout the 1930s and 40s held a near monopoly on Utah’s salt industry, assumed total ownership. Morton was anxious to create a nationwide system of distribution. But the expanding 1950s market allowed three other companies to gain footholds in Utah without curtailing Morton growth.

Salt Refining-- Water is pumped from the Great Salt Lake into large concentration ponds where the salt, averaging 99.5% pure is precipitated by solar evaporation. Salt is loosened by tractor-drawn plows piled in long mounds for curing and later hauled to the mill for refining and packing. Credit: Utah Tourist & Pub. Used in Utah Historical Quarterly, Summer, 1963. Photo by: Hal Rumel.

Salt Refining—Water is pumped from the Great Salt Lake into large concentration ponds where the salt, averaging 99.5% pure, is precipitated by solar evaporation. Salt is loosened by tractor-drawn plows piled in long mounds for curing and later hauled to the mill for refining and packing. Credit: Utah Tourist & Pub. Used in Utah Historical Quarterly, Summer, 1963. Photo by: Hal Rumel.

In 1991 Morton purchased the North American Salt Company plant near Grantsville and tore down the remains of the Saltair works. Using 15,000 acres of evaporation ponds, Morton continues to produce and distribute varying grades of salt for human and livestock consumption, water softening, and deicing.

Sources: John C. Clark, “History of Utah Salt Industries, 1847–1970” (Master’s thesis, Brigham Young University 1971); Foster family personal histories in possession of writer.