Let's Drink to the Salt of the Earth - Karen Webster column
As warm tropical seas evaporated over 400 million years ago, salt deposits were laid down and then buried under layers of rock. Ancient peoples found that salt helped preserve food and that discovery enabled the advancement of civilization. No longer were people forced to gather food day by day because they could store it for future use, such as on a sea voyage.
Salt comes from either salt water as in the oceans or from underground deposits. Locally, salt was first found in the flats of the Maitland River near Goderich. Samuel Platt was drilling for oil in 1866 and stumbled on one of the largest and purest deposits in the world, the Michigan Salt Basin. At one time, there were over 17 active salt operations near Goderich producing thousands of barrels of salt a day. The largest and most important salt works was operated by Peter MacEwan.
The extraction of salt was accomplished by forcing hot water down into the deposit, thus dissolving the salt into a brine which was then piped to the surface to be evaporated in large pans. Goderich was not the only area to produce salt. Among other places, deposits were also found in Seaforth, Clinton, Brussels, Blyth and Wingham.
On Jan. 1, 1870, drilling for salt began in Seaforth. The Coleman family company found a bed of salt, seven to eight feet deep, at a depth of 1,020 feet. They used two pans to evaporate the brine and were able to produce about 200 barrels of salt a day from the brine that was 98 per cent pure. The salt works were located south of the railway track, east of Main Street. Other salt companies were Salt Works, the Eclipse Salt Works (run by the company of Gray, Young and Sparling) and the Merchant Salt Company.
In Clinton, Richard Ransford, the son of English landowner Henry, drilled a well on his father’s farm, Stapleton, located just east of the village. Solid rock salt was found at 1,172 feet, and, at its peak, Stapleton Salt Works produced 300 barrels a day. A second salt operation was that of John McGarva, which was located west of Clinton near the railway line.
Enterprise Salt Works, run by the Coleman family, was located in Brussels. The company produced salt for households, dairy, cheese and meat-packing purposes. The Brussels Post of Sept. 10, 1897 reported that Enterprise had shipped five (rail) cars of salt that week.
The village of Blyth offered a bonus to the company of Gray, Young and Sparling of Seaforth to establish a salt works. Drilling commenced on three acres of the James Logan farm on the eastern limit of Blyth on Dinsley Street, near the Goderich Trunk Railway station. Later, another five acres was added to the works and a second well was drilled. In one winter alone, area farmers brought in 6,000 bush cords of wood to fire the evaporating pans. In 1881, a saw mill and a stave factory, employing five coopers, were built to provide the barrels needed for shipments. The salt works employed about 20 men at a rate of 90 cents a day and their foreman received $1.10. Production there ceased sometime in the 1890s.
The salt well near Wingham was drilled on Lot 41, Concession 13 of East Wawanosh Township in 1887. This well was 1,200 feet deep and had 25 feet of salt rock below. Later, an additional well was sunk next door on Lot 42. Four-inch pipes laid over ground carried the brine to the salt works located on Victoria Street West in Wingham, at the terminus of the Canadian Pacific rail line. Storage and the office were on the north side of the street and the salt pans raised up on stilts were located on the river side of the street. A 144' x 24' evaporating pan that was between eight and 12 inches deep was kept boiling 24 hours a day. Some 15 people were employed manufacturing both coarse and medium grades of salt. The last owner there was a meat-packing company that sought to use the salt for curing meat. When this was found not to be feasible, the operations were shut down in 1925.
The production of salt was a great boon to the economy of this area. Labour was needed to drill and maintain the brine operation, as well as firing the evaporator pans and then packaging and transporting the salt products. Local farmers received $2 per bush cord for the copious amounts of wood needed. Once the supply of wood dwindled, diesel engines were needed. Salt was mostly shipped in wooden barrels containing 300 pounds. Most of these salt companies entered their product in expositions, winning many awards for the fine quality salt they produced.
In 1890, the provincial government conducted a Royal Commission on the Mineral Resources of Ontario. Interviews with stakeholders in the salt industry described the then-current conditions of the industry. There was concern about competition from duty-free importation of salt from England causing profits from local salt to be impacted. Once most area farms had been cleared for cultivation, supplies of cheap cord wood were diminishing, and shipping costs were increasing.
The real boom of brine salt production lasted for about 20 years in central Huron County ending around the turn of the 20th century.
In 2022, the production of salt in Huron County continues as Compass Minerals produces both rock salt and salt from brine in Goderich. This company operates the largest underground salt mine in the world 1,800 feet under Lake Huron and has recently announced the drilling of two new brine wells.