Syracuse, New York (The Salt City)

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Syracuse, New York "The Salt City"

Although the City of Syracuse, New York has an average annual snowfall of 124" (61 cm) [1], Syracuse is not called The Salt City because of all the salt used on the roads but rather because Syracuse was the major producer of salt used in the United States throughout the 1800s.

Early Settlement

Original inhabitants were the Onondaga, a member nation of the Iroquois Confederacy. Jesuit missionaries arrived around 1625. Father Simon LeMoyne arrived around 1654 and was the first to report of the salt brine springs at the southern end of the "Salt Lake", now known as Onondaga Lake.[2][3] The French returned around 1656 to build a mission known as Sainte Marie among the Iroquois on the northeast shore of Onondaga Lake.[4] The salt brine results from the underlying geology of the Salina group of shales.[5][3]

In 1788 The Treaty of Fort Stanwix treaty was made between the State of New York and the Onondaga where the Onondaga transferred 20,000 acres around the lake to the state on the condition "that it shall remain forever, for the common benefit of the people of the State of New York and the Onondagas for the purpose of making salt".[6][7][3]

The Military Tract and constituent townships were established after the Revolutionary War, including the townships of Onondaga, Salina and Geddes. In 1797 a law was passed to lay out the Salt Springs Reservation which included marsh and upland in the town of Salina. The portion of the Salt Springs Reservation on the west side of Onondaga lake became the town of Camillus in 1799. Salina was established as a town in 1809.[8]

The first white settler was Ephraim Webster, settling at the mouth of Onondaga Creek where it empties into Onondaga Lake around 1778. He was followed by Asa Danforth and Comfort Tyler in 1788. There was no saw mill or grist mill closer than 75 miles; Asa Danforth established both. Both Asa Danforth and Comfort Tyler became pioneers in the salt industry; Danforth made his first salt in 1788.[9]At that time there were only Indian trails and paths. The first road was built around 1790, and building continued into the early 1800s. Notable roads were the Great Genesee Road (Genesee Turnpike) and the Seneca Turnpike.[10]

Settlements in the town of Salina included villages/hamlets of Salina, Geddes, and "Salt Point" in 1793. In 1793 more than 20 of the 63 persons living in the village of Salina were ill. The town of Salina was incorporated in 1809.[11] James Geddes arrived in early 1794, drawn by the production of salt, and was founder of the village of Geddes, which became Syracuse.[12] In his comments about Syracuse, Hall says:[13]

"the low and swampy jungle where the first buildings of Syracuse were first erected"
"no city in the United States was founded in such a dismal, uninteresting and impractical spot"

The first mention of a bank in the village of Salina was in conjunction with Thomas Murphy, who settled there in 1808.

In 1822, Syracuse had not more than two hundred and fifty inhabitants, and no place of worship; the whole church-going community was only from thirty to forty; no school-house, only two taverns.[14]

Salt Production

Salt Block Building

From 1797 to 1917 the Onondaga Salt Reservation produced more than 11.5 million tons of finished salt.[3][7] Started by pioneers Asa Danforth and Comfort Tyler around 1788 by 1791 there were 8000 bushels of salt per year (where one bushel was approximately 56 pounds (35 litres) of salt).

Salt was produced by a boiling method, a solar method, or via salt mines (drilling). The boiling method was used for the brine at Salt Point, where salt water is pumped into a a salt block and boiled in large caldrons heated from beneath. When boiling production was at its peak in 1862, there were about 17,000 of these kettles in the area working to produce salt.

Inside of Salt Block Building

Using the evaporation method, salt water is pumped into large, shallow vats and exposed to the sun for a few weeks. (This must have proved a challenge in Syracuse which ranks 14 in the United States for the least number of sun days per year.) Because of weather, this method could only be used from May to November. The evaporation process required a higher concentration of brine and shallow wells were dug. Although the state authorized drilling of deep wells in 1838, none found the source of the salt.

Salt Wells
Salt Yards at Syracuse

in 1888 the Solvay Process Company established a chemical plant along the south shore of Onondaga Lake. As the salt from the brine was diminishing, Solvay Process drilled deep wells about 15 miles south of Syracuse from which they extracted more than 96.2 million tons of salt between 1890 and 1986. Surrounding businesses drilled wells to use water for cooling, which led to discharge of a salty brine back into Onondaga Lake. This, combined with increased salt production, led to a less concentrated brine, leading to the decline of the salt production industry by the late 1800s.

Solvay Process along Onondaga Lake

Conditions were difficult for early workers in the salt industry, many of whom were Irish immigrants. In his Memorial history of Syracuse, N.Y, Hall devotes a chapter to the salt industry. He describes the treacherous swamp conditions and identifies early settlers.[15] These low swampy conditions led to disease and an annual death rate of nearly one third of the inhabitants.[16] As observed by Schramm[14]

"If you were traveling through Central New York two centuries ago, unless you had a death wish, there is little likelihood you would have spent much time in the dismal, fetid swamp that occupied what is now downtown Syracuse. The tiny settlement of Salina to the north as well housed but a motley collection of "salt boilers" who died by the score each summer when the fever struck."

Legacies from the Salt Industry

The early Irish workers would bring small unpeeled potatoes as their lunch, and would boil the potatoes in the salt brine. These Irish thus introduced the Syracuse Salt Potato, served at picnics and family gatherings. When cooked the potatoes do not taste extremely salty, but have a unique texture almost as if they have been mashed.[17]

The Solvay Process Company continued its operations on the south side of Onondaga Lake. After merging with Allied Chemical in 1920, they began to produce chlorine by mercury cell, dumping waste directly into the lake. Swimming in the lake was banned in 1940, and fishing was banned in 1970, and the plant was eventually closed in 1986.[18] During the 1960s, the lake appeared to shimmer with yellow, green, pink, orange and purple colors.[19] At one time recognized as the most polluted lake in the United States, a concerted effort has been made to recover Onondaga Lake, and by 2012 fishing was restored.[20]

The Syracuse Salt Museum, located along Onondaga Lake, is an opportunity to explore the history of the salt industry.[21] The Story of Syracuse Salt, found in an online blog about upstate New York travel, has a very interesting description of a visit to the Salt Museum.[22]

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  2. Syracuse NY History: Page 18-26
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Kappel, William M., Salt production in Syracuse, New York ("The Salt City") and the hydrogeology of the Onondaga Creek Valley, U.S. Geological Survey, Report 139-00, Fact Sheet. 10.3133/fs13900 (USGS Publications Warehouse. : accessed 1 Mar 2021)
  5. Syracuse NY History: Page 38-39
  6. Syracuse NY History: Page 32
  7. 7.0 7.1 Valerie Jackson Bell. The Onondaga New York Salt Works (1654 - 1926), Onondaga County Office of Museums, P.O. Box 146, Liverpool, NY 13088, U.S.A ( accessed: 1 Mar 2021)
  8. Syracuse NY History: Page 32-37
  9. Syracuse NY History: Page 48-54
  10. Syracuse NY History: Page 41-47
  11. Syracuse NY History: Page 71-82
  12. Syracuse NY History: Page 71-82
  13. Syracuse NY History: Page 93
  14. 14.0 14.1 Henry W. Schramm, Syracuse - An Historic Outline ( accessed : 1 Mar 2021)
  15. Syracuse NY History: Page 378
  16. Syracuse NY History: Page 383
  19. Personal observation Sands-1965 Kay Knight
  20. National Public Radio, All Things Consider. America's 'Most Polluted' Lake Finally Comes Clean. 31 Jul 2012 ( : accessed 2 Mar 2021)
  21. Onondaga County, New York Parks.
  22. Chris Clemens. The Story of Syracuse Salt 28 Jun 2018, Exploring Upstate ( accessed : 1 Mar 2021)
  • MURPHY, JOSEPH HAWLEY. "THE SALT INDUSTRY OF SYRACUSE— A BRIEF REVIEW." New York History 30, no. 3 (1949): 304-15. Accessed March 1, 2021.

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Categories: Syracuse, New York