History of salt fields of Cayuga Lake Watershed

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About 550 million years ago, this region of New York state sank below sea level, and a shallow, salty sea spread across it.

During this time, there was a period when the water collected in vast lagoons and evaporated, leaving layers of salt hundreds of feet thick. Sudden rain storms carried landslides from the surrounding uplands to cover these layers of brine with mud.

As the years passed, new salt lagoons formed to be covered by new mudslides, and as this happened, “salt lenses” were left of many different sizes at varying depths in the earth. The mudslides became shale deposits.
Salt has always been a very important part of man’s survival on this earth. Before refrigeration, salting and drying of food was one of the few ways to preserve it.

When the early settlers came to this area in the 1790s, they made friends with the Native Americans who knew where the valuable salt springs were located. Because salt was a valuable item of trade, the location of these springs was kept a secret.

As early as 1817, a Mr. Tory sunk two wells just south of the village of Ithaca in an effort to tap the veins of salt water he believed to underlie that locality, but he found nothing but fresh water. Today, citizens of Lansing are often dismayed when they drill a well for domestic water, only to find undrinkable salt water.

In 1891, men armed with geological maps of the New York salt deposit came to Myers Point, leased a tract of land and drilled the first salt well. Finding a good supply of salt, they formed the Cayuga Lake Salt Company and began evaporating the brine from the well.

Another well was drilled, and, in 1893, a nine foot vacuum pan and a rotary dryer made the production of high-grade salt possible. At this time, the plant had a capacity of 140 tons daily and employed 100 people.

The Refinery continued to grow, and many people from Syria came to work in the plant and live on the hill above the point. The refinery became the International Salt Company and produced table salt and industrial salt until

1962, when it was consolidated with the Watkins Glen plant and the vacuum pans were loaded on flat cars and taken by railroad to the new location. As the plant was being demolished, it caught on fire and burned to the ground in the summer of 1962.

The brine that is brought up from the salt wells is purified and then evaporated to make table salt. Industrial salt, as well as salt which is used to melt the ice on winter’s snow-covered roads, comes from deep mines that bring up chunks of dirty looking salt called rock salt..

At Portland Point, just south of Myers Point, John Clute opened the first salt mine in 1915 and organized the Rock Salt Corporation. In 1916, the mine shaft was put down to the 1500-foot level, but the salt was of poor quality. By 1918, the mine was struggling to produce good salt, and Clute became despondent and committed suicide.

Enter Frank L. Bolton and John W. Shannon, who, in 1921, founded the Cayuga Rock Salt Company. One of the first people employed was William B. Wilkinson. William’s sister, Lucie, also became a member of the staff. Lucie married Frank Bolton, and when Bolton died, Lucie became president of the company and her brother first vice president.

The operation was first intended by Bolton to be a salt brine plant like the one on Myers Point, but in this case, Bolton planned to pipe the brine to Buffalo, New York, and not have the expense of the large evaporating systems. But, instead, he decided to make the project into a hard rock salt mine. In order to do this, he had to sink the shaft beyond the 1,600-foot level to a 2,000-foot level to find a better vein of salt. This second salt bed was 10 to 40 feet thick, and the salt averaged 99.1% pure.

There are seven salt beds that extend from Lansing to Michigan, varying in height and quality. In this area, there are only two beds that are of good quality and mineable – the number four level at 2,000 feet and the number six level, which is 2,300 feet underground.

The number four level was mined from 1925 to 1968. By 1968, the horizontal shaft, with a face that was being worked, was two to three miles from the main shaft and, because of haulage distance, became unprofitable.

The Cayuga Rock Salt company had not invested in improving the mine, and it was very antiquated and quite unsafe when, in 1970, Cargill bought the mine rights.

Cargill modernized the facility by replacing the old rail haulage system with a belt line and screened the material underground so that only saleable salt was hoisted. (The Cayuga Rock Salt had been bringing all the salt to the surface and dumping the unsaleable salt on the land above Cayuga Lake.) A new ventilation system made the use of diesel powered units feasible, and the old battery operated equipment was discarded.

Another shaft was bored from the bottom of 2,300-foot level to the surface. (This was the first time that a shaft of that size had ever been drilled bottom to top. It was the largest single bore hole in the world at the time it was bored.) The shaft was 12 feet in diameter and used for hoisting men and materials to and from the mine. It is also used to exhaust the mine air to the surface.

The salt is mined in a “room and pillar” method, with pillars of salt left standing to support the ceilings of the large mine areas. Visualize a blank wall; in order to go forward, you must take the wall down. The mining term for this wall is a “face.”

To begin, a large undercutter (a big chain saw with a 15-foot bar; overall length 36 feet) is used to cut the floor out 15 feet deep and 6 inches high. This is done to allow expansion when the face is shot. The cut is called a kerf.

After cutting, a large electric drill is brought in with two hydraulic drills. Twenty-four holes, 15 feet in depth, are drilled in the face. The holes are filled with explosives, and the face is blown. Then front-end loaders come in and scoop out the pile of fallen salt. If the roof of this section of the mine does not have enough depth of salt to support it, the roof is secured with five-foot metal bolts.

Today, the mine is comprised of over 18,000 subterranean acres on the east side of, and beneath, the lake, with a production potential of 10,000 tons of salt mined daily. The main horizontal shaft runs for five miles from Portland Point north to the Taughannock Falls area. From this shaft, several tunnels run to the east, where the blasting is being done.

Because the salt in the pile is of many different sizes, it has to be processed in a crusher, called a stambler, so that it becomes more uniform in size. Then, the salt is hoisted to the surface and loaded into trucks or railroad cars to be taken away. The mine can pull eight tons a minute from the earth, often loading up to 70 tractor-trailers an hour in a hard winter season. More salt is bagged on site for retail sale.

If more salt is mined than is needed, it is stored above ground. There are several storage buildings on the mine site as well as a large storage area off DeCamp Road in North Lansing. The fine salt that is not usable is returned to the mine, where it is dumped in areas that are not being mined anymore.

Whether the production of salt in the Cayuga Watershed is an environmentally proper occurrence for the region is up for question, but this production is undeniably part of the watershed’s history and future.

In Brief: Music in the Park

The “Music in the Park” summer concert series kicks of July 11 with Steve Southworth and Rockabilly Rays, a professional, non-stop, move-your-feet, fun tribute band playing tunes from the ’50s and ’60s. This band has been a staple performance in the Ithaca area for more than 20 years.
This year, there will be food trucks, Meg-a-Moo’s ice cream and beverages from the Salt Point Brewery. All concerts begin at 6:30 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated.

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