by Chris Clemens
You’ve likely heard Syracuse, New York referred to by the nickname “The Salt City”. It may seem odd for an area so far from an ocean to identify with salt, but Syracuse was once the main salt producer in the country. You won’t find too much production there today, but you will find stories of the history of Syracuse salt.
Preserved within an original production barn on the north side of Onondaga Lake is the Salt Museum in Liverpool. The museum is owned and operated by the Onondaga County Parks department. It offers the public a glimpse at how Syracuse salt became the center of salt production in the States. Since I’m hitting up a new museum each month this year, I decided June’s visit would be to Syracuse. In fact, visiting the Salt Museum is how I celebrated my 39th birthday!
The Onondaga Formation
Long before Syracuse was settled, a geological transformation took place in the region we now know as Central New York. Much of this area was covered by sea. That sat on top of a mud-caked shale bed that formed over 300 million years ago. As the sea evaporated, in the shallower areas, it left behind a collection of what is now called “common salt”.
Later during the Ice Age, another transformation took place when the glaciers formed and then deformed as they melted. That process helped create what is now known as the Onondaga Formation. The result of that formation was essentially a salty strip extending from the Hudson Valley up into Lake Huron. The path of the Onondaga Formation cut right through Central New York, and what remained was the briny water and salt deposits.
Salt is Discovered
The Onondaga people knew their water was different, but believed it to be cursed by an evil spirit. In August of 1654, a Jesuit missionary named Simon Le Moyne arrived to visit with the Onondaga people. During his stay, he drank from a spring and recognized it to be saltwater. Though the Onondagas already knew of the water’s properties, it is believed that this was the start of salt’s fame in Central New York.
Soon after, the British struck a deal with the Onondagas to take control of the land, but that didn’t last. Then, a Presbyterian missionary from Scotland tried to alert General Schuyler about the “salt lands” and how they could be used. There was some curiosity about the brackish water in the region, but no action. Finally, in the 1770’s, the land was designated as the Salt Springs Reservation. During that time, people began to boil the saltwater to extract salt for personal use.
There’s Money In Salt
It wasn’t long before a few entrepreneurs set up shop to begin producing salt as an export. In fact, it became so prosperous that the New York State government had to step in and put regulations in place. A commissioner was appointed, and land was leased, and the whole process was subject to strict oversight.
What I found interesting is even while salt producers weren’t keen on regulation, everyone was still making a ton of money. During the earlier timeline, a worker who was boiling the water to extract salt could produce about 600 bushels a year at $1.00 per bushel. That might not sound like much, but remember that we’re still talking about the early 1800’s.
As development continued, so did methods for extracting the salt. A display in the museum shows how early workers would’ve boiled the lake water to extract the particles they were seeking. When boiling production was at its peak in 1862, there were about 17,000 of these kettles in the area working to produce salt.
The museum also has displays that teach visitors about the newer methods that were developed. Toward the end of the production era, producers were using a solar method. This meant essentially drying it in the sometimes scorching Central New York sun. While the region’s sunlight was helpful, the sudden change to rainfall could be a detriment to business. An alarm would sound when clouds appeared, and literally everyone within earshot would drop would they were doing to show up and begin moving these rooftops over the drying beds.
SOME INTERESTING FACTS
- It’s argued that the North won the Civil War because of Syracuse Salt. While it was being produced here thousands of bushels at a time, the North also controlled mines in Pennsylvania and Virginia. The South couldn’t buy salt even if they wanted to! As a result, they had difficulty preserving food rations.
- Much of the area around Liverpool had pipes to move the salt water. These pipes were made from hallowed logs, some of which were made by hand. The logs were made from tupelo trees, which are nearly extinct in this region because so many logs were made.
- Even today, “salt potatoes” are a Central New York delicacy, and they were first created right here in the factories when workers would drop potatoes into boiling brine.
The End of an Era
As you can probably guess, the Erie Canal passing through Syracuse offered a huge opportunity for shipping. Like many other industries that benefited from the water way, the salt industry suffered a blow as producers out west set up shop. That coupled with production costs that increased each year, meant that people started closing up around 1900.
There are still a few companies in the Syracuse area that celebrate Central New York salinity, but most evidence of the booming industry is long gone. Luckily, there’s a great little museum right on the shores of the lake for us to visit! If you’re planning to check it out, do so during the summer months, as operations are seasonal.
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens