More Than a Grain of Salt

Few things are more common in daily life than salt. While often unnoticed until a dish is rejected as “too salty,” the simple crystalline substance was once the lifeblood of Syracuse. Spread over thousands of acres at the southern end of Onondaga Lake, the once-booming industry established the city as the nation’s principal salt supplier, and earned its nickname “The Salt City.” At its peak, in the year 1862, production reached almost 10,000,000 bushels.

The first account of salt springs on Onondaga Nation territory was recorded in 1654 by Father Simon LeMoyne, a visiting Jesuit missionary. Native Americans were well aware of the springs but had traditionally avoided them, believing the briny watering places were tainted by evil spirits.

The first permanent salt works were established in the late 1700s, and the “boiling blocks” continued to grow in scope throughout the 19th century. The process was a relatively simple one. Brine was piped into a row of cauldrons with a single wood (and later coal) fire supplying heat for each row. As water boiled off, impurities fell to the kettle’s bottom. Salt crystals rose to the surface, were scooped into drying baskets, and eventually packed into barrels. The tedious work required long hours, difficult working conditions, and depended largely on immigrant labor.

In time, wood supplies dwindled and coal costs became prohibitive. The industry survived using solar evaporation, a cheap and efficient method. Brine was kept in vats for a time to let impurities settle out. The brine was then transferred to large shallow trays and allowed to evaporate in the sun until the accumulation of salt crystals could be raked into piles and transported for storage. Bells warned of approaching inclement weather (another Syracuse tradition) sending workers scurrying to pull rolling roofs over the vulnerable trays to protect valuable salt crystals.

Considerable financial returns from the salt works benefitted both Syracuse and New York State until the industry finally wound down in the early 1900s, due to competition from expanding salt discoveries in the western states. By that time, Syracuse had shipped some 400,000,000 bushels of the “white gold” around the world, enough to fill today’s Carrier Dome several times over.

Salt is not forgotten in Syracuse. Images of salt vats and salt block chimneys still pop up in various business and municipal logos. The city’s main drag is named Salina Street, and before Otto the Orange, Syracuse University heralded The Saltine Warrior as its mascot. In those bygone days, a salt worker’s lunch typically consisted of spuds tossed into the boiling brine to create what remains a Syracuse-area favorite today – savory salt potatoes.
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The Salt Museum in Liverpool presents a history of the industry that once labeled Syracuse “The Salt City.” Artifacts and photographs from the era are on display in a replicated industry building, constructed from original timbers around a surviving salt block chimney. The Salt Museum is open on weekends from mid-May until mid-October.