Salton Sea Salt Works
Indian legends persisted of a lake forming every 50 to 100 years in the bottom of the Salton Sink. The source was a fickle river that in other floods flowed into the Gulf of California. The Indians knew about, and used the salt deposits, too. A pre-Columbian trail, used by Indians making the trek for salt, leads from the Colorado River to the now Salton Sea.
The northern Diegueno Indians from the coast called the deposits “esily” meaning salt, and they, too made the journey for this precious commodity. As early as the spring of 1815, ox-drawn carretas from Los Angeles made yearly month-long expeditions for salt. The trip was called, “jornada para sal”…journey for salt. The Indians were right about the source of the recurring lake, too.
George Durbrow, a San Francisco businessman, didn’t quite believe the recurring part. He found through analyses that the salt at the bottom of the sink was of remarkable purity. It was so pure that his projected salt industry would require none of the equipment of ordinary salt works. The mill he planned needed only machinery for grinding and bagging the salt for shipment from Salton Station, twelve miles below Mecca, utilizing the nearby Southern Pacific Railway.
Durbrow was granted Articles of Incorporation for the New Liverpool Salt Company on January 15, 1885. He actually had begun work on the salt beds in 1884, when he shipped over 1,500 tons of this “white gold” to San Francisco. The vast salt deposits, comprising over 1,000 acres of unusually pure rock salt, were considered one of the largest in the country. During the company’s active years, Cahuilla Indians provided the labor force. Historian George Wharton James described the operation in these words: “They moved across the brilliant, glaring white fields, tilling the deposits. The salt was plowed by means of plows attached to bands that traveled across the salt bed from one engine to another. The furrows cut were eight feet wide and six inches deep and each plow was capable of harvesting over 700 tons per day.”
After the salt was smashed by the plows, it was piled in conical mounds and then conveyed by tram railway to the salt works. There Japanese and Indian workers ground the salt and sacked it and shipped it to various markets. The crop was priced at from $6 to $34 per ton. Low grade salt was sold for hide salt and the finer crystals were sold as bath salts. The richness of the field was such that it is doubtful whether the company ever worked more than one hundredth of the area. Interestingly, the salt beds were seemingly inexhaustible. As fast as one crop was worked, a new deposit flowed in from nearby saline springs, and, as evaporation was rapid, a layer of pure salt, from 10 to 20 inches thick would be formed. Near the salt fields there existed a hot salt springs in the midst of bubbling quicksand and mud. It hissed and roared so as to be heard for a long distance. Historian James said, “The steam rushed out in large volume … Connected with the bowl was a small lake or pond of greenish looking water. On tasting it I found it so salty that it surprised me into swallowing a mouthful, to my intense disgust.”
The New Liverpool Salt Company operated its works for almost 20 years, without competition. In 1901 a rival concern, the Standard Salt Company, discovered that title to the land was vested in the US government, and the New Liverpool Company had no rights to harvest the salt . A hastily passed congressional bill required companies to file claims on saline lands. Both Liverpool and Standard had representatives m Washington DC ready to telegraph the news that President McKinley had signed the bill and the land was up for grabs. Word arrived at the Mecca telegraph station and the Liverpool men took off down their railroad tracks in a pumphand car, intending to race to the most choice locations to file their claims. The Standard men took off in a horse and buggy in a great cloud of dust, “knowing smiles” on their faces. When the perspiring Liverpool boys got to the salty area, they found that the Standard men had rigged up a series of mirrors to flash the message, and, in fact, the word had arrived at their camp before the racers were out of Mecca! Ultimately the two companies worked together, but salt mining was doomed to a very short future. When the full flow of the Colorado River moved north through Imperial Valley and into the Salton Sink in 1905, it soon covered the plant. By 1907 nothing remained above the surface of the newly formed Salton Sea.
As a boy, in 1906, Otho Moore and his young friend, Dean Redfield, hopped a local freight and rode to Salton, from where they could see the big red buildings and smoke stacks of the New Liverpool Salt Company sticking out of the rising water. Said Moore in a newspaper clipping of May 7, 1955, “At Salton were the houses of the housing project for the salt company’s employees, all of them surrounded by four feet of water.” The article goes on to say that the boys found a little boat, paddled out into the rising sea, were caught in a swift current and found themselves carried about three miles west. It took until evening to paddle back to Salton, sunburned, thirsty and tired.
In 1908, on a trip to Niland by passenger train, with his mother, Otho remembers that the train tracks were inundated and that swift waters were flowing over the tracks. When he looked out to where the buildings and smoke stacks had been, there was nothing to see but the rising waters of the future Salton Sea.
Mr. Durbrow suffered mightily in those years. Not only did he lose his salt mine and all of its buildings and equipment, but his home and holdings in San Francisco were destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906. A subdivision he planned for the town of Arabia, located on the present Hwy 111 between Avenue 60 and Avenue 61 (now a part of Oasis Date Gardens) still shows on Riverside County tax bills as lot such and such of Durbrow. Imperial Irrigation Company ultimately paid a damage claim for loss of the salt works, although it was said that the mining operation had not been very profitable m its last years. According to Harry Lawton, in later years sportsmen skimming the sea in motorboats, on a clear day, could look down on the submerged buildings and machinery of one of Riverside County’s earliest industries.
Text courtesy of http://www.sci.sdsu.edu/salton/PeriscopeSaltonSeaCh1-4.html
Photo’s courtesy of saltonseamuseum.org