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October 1, 2013 > History Column: When it rains it pours

History Column: When it rains it pours

Salt harvesting - March 28, 1993

The vast expanse of land between San Leandro Bay and Warm Springs Landing to the south are usually marked Òsalt marshÓ on maps. This marshland provides a natural area for salt production, good as any place on Earth.

The Ohlone gathered natural salt from the tide pools along San Francisco Bay. High tides would fill the pools and a hot summer sun would evaporate the water, leaving salt behind. The salt had to be gathered before high fall tides returned.

Early Spanish explorers were led to a lagoon of salt water by the Ohlone; the only source of salt in the area. The padres gathered the natural salt and even set up a crude operation near the Mission landing. Spanish and Mexican families came annually with their horses and wagons to collect salt.

Pioneers gathered salt to meet their needs and began building dikes to trap the brine and increase the harvest. Isaac Long hauled crude salt from the old Mission salt fields in 1852, dividing the marshland into ponds. Windmill pumps moved the water from pond to pond. The salt was then picked up and stored in sheds. A tramway car connected the salt fields to the landing, where it was loaded onto ships.

Competition drove the price of salt down from $50 a ton to $2 and Long could not make a profit; he sold his ponds to John Plummer in 1855.

Salt gathering was a small industry until John Quigley improved the quality and began large-scale production at his Alvarado Salt Works in 1862. Quigley was listed as a salt maker at Warm Springs in an 1870 business directory, but Alvarado was his usual address. Quigley and Plummer were the ones usually mentioned in business directories. Quigley continued his independent operation until 1909.

Plummer introduced new methods of salt production and shipped the first salt from wooden floors. He built his Crystal Salt Works near Mayhews Landing in 1864. It was the first mechanized salt operation in the Newark area, powered by windmills. Plummer and his sons, Charles and John Jr., purchased land east of Alvarado in 1868 and set up the Turk Island Salt Works. This property was developed until it was capable of producing 3,000 tons a year. Plummer retired in 1881, but his sons carried on the business until 1925.

The Union Pacific Salt Company was incorporated in 1868 with works at the mouth of Alameda Creek. The company purchased 1,000 acres around Rock island and became the largest of the 19th century salt plants, employing about 100 men and producing 70,000 tons of salt in 10 years.

Windmills powered a wheel that forced water up an incline to an adjacent pond a foot or two higher. There were 15 flood gates to admit bay water into receiving ponds. Six crystallizing ponds produced 200 tons apiece, and special elevated wood pans led to table salt production. The salt was ground in a mill by corrugated granite rollers driven by a portable steam engine. Then it was stored in stacks of 200 to 1,200 tons for one rainy season to harden and whiten.

The principal salt works in 1876 were the Union Pacific near Union City Slough, QuigleyÕs near BarronÕs Landing and PlummerÕs Crystal Salt Works at Mayhews Landing. Salt making was the fifth most important commercial enterprise in the township. The 1878 Atlas pictured the operation of the Union Pacific Rock Island Salt works, as well as the Alvarado Salt works of John Quigley. Crystal Salt Works ranked second in production to the Union Pacific. There were numerous smaller operations, and altogether, the industry employed hundreds of men and huge amounts of capital.

Continental Salt and Chemical Company organized in 1900 and built a salt works north of Coyote Hills Slough; the operation could process 200 tons a day. The California Salt Company built a plant west of Coyote Hills, where salt had never been produced, bought other salt plants and had 6,000 acres in production by 1917. California, Continental and Leslie companies joined forces and incorporated in 1924 as the Leslie-California Salt Co. They combined manufacturing plants and did their refining at Alvarado.

Arden Salt Co. started with a small plant at Dumbarton Point and expanded to 5,000 acres near Newark. Arden bought other companies and by 1935 was producing as much salt as all other producers in California. Arden and Leslie merged in 1936 to create the Leslie Salt Company and became the largest landholder in the South Bay.

In 1941 Leslie built a $1 million dollar plant. The investment of Morton and Leslie in the Newark area totaled more than $7 million. In 1978, Cargill Salt acquired Leslie in the largest real estate deal in the Bay AreaÕs history. Cargill is continuing the tradition of harvesting San Francisco Bay solar salt. The annual crop has reached over 500,000 tons.

Salt is used in a variety of ways from salt shakers to water conditioning to de-icing winter roads. The art of salt production has been improved by technologies that require less land to produce a higher quality salt. Cargill has been able to set aside thousands of acres of salt ponds for habitat preservation.

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