It Could Be Called Utah’s Fort Knox

Miriam B. Murphy
History Blazer, March 1995

As one of the West’s great mining states, Utah became known for its silver, copper, and gold production. Bingham Canyon, Park City, Silver Reef, and Mercur are just a few of the historic mining areas, but the Great Salt Lake holds a huge cache of minerals estimated in 1981 to be worth $90 billion. One might call this vast treasure house Utah’s Fort Knox. “In view of the riches stored in the lake,” Peter G. Czerny wrote, “it is ironic that in 1873 a study was made to see if the lake could be drained into Nevada to get rid of it once and for all.”

Most schemes involving the lake, though, have sought to exploit its unique offerings rather than destroy them. Recreation—everything from bird watching and duck hunting to boating, bathing, and other resort activities—continue to attract people to its shores. Several individuals, including artist Alfred Lambourne, have lived on islands in the lake, and ranchers have run livestock operations on Antelope Island.

By far the most profitable use of the lake has been the development of mineral industries. Sodium chloride—common salt—is but one of many minerals extracted from the lake. In 1991 Utah produced 2.5 million short tons of salt valued at $41.6 million. Other minerals drawn from the briny waters include chlorine, magnesium, potassium sulfate, sodium sulfate, sulfur, calcium, bromine, boron, and lithium. Potassium sulfate and sodium sulfate have worldwide industrial uses in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals, glass, fertilizer, paper, and dyes.

Another multimillion-dollar industry associated with the lake is the harvesting of brine shrimp. According to a Bureau of Land Management newsletter, “brine shrimp, at different stages of development, are an ideally nutritious food for tropical fish and are used worldwide in local and international markets.” The shrimp are peculiarly adapted to survive in water eight times more salty than the ocean. They have “a defense mechanism that allows them to return to egg form . . . if salinity conditions are too high” for the babies to live. They will remain dormant until conditions are right for their development to adulthood to continue. The dormant “eggs are harvested, cleaned, dried and stored under vacuum, remaining viable for years.” Some eggs have been marketed as “sea monkeys” for people to place in water and watch them grow.

Shortly before statehood yet another lake industry captured the imagination of Utah entrepreneurs. In 1895 the Cummings brothers and others discovered immense deposits of guano on Gunnison Island in the northwest section of the lake. On February 27 the brothers, accompanied by Charles Bates, and an “expert from Chicago,” a Mr. Jennings, boarded Captain Charles L. Wilkes’s steamer Talula at Saltair for the 70-mile run to Gunnison Island. The 155-acre island’s rocky ledges are a nesting place for pelicans and seagulls. The party reportedly found deposits of guano two feet deep and estimated 75,000 to 100,000 tons of it was available.

They moved rapidly forward with their project and by April 9 the first carload of Gunnison Island guano had arrived at Cohn’s warehouse near the Union Pacific depot in Salt Lake City. Two wagon loads of it were soon dispatched to Lehi for experimental use as fertilizer for vegetables and sugar beets. The Salt Lake Tribune hoped it was the beginning of yet another Utah industry, but guano proved difficult to procure, according to historian Dale L. Morgan. For one thing, rain tends to wash it into the lake almost as fast as it accumulates.

None of these industries has excited the imaginations of historians, sociologists, and writers the way precious metal, copper, and coal mining have. Perhaps, it is because there are no towns like Bingham, Castle Gate, or Park City with their colorful ethnic enclaves surrounding the lake. Nevertheless, the Great Salt Lake as a storehouse of mineral wealth may top them all.

For more information on the lake see Dale L. Morgan, The Great Salt Lake (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1947); Peter G. Czerny, The Great Great Salt Lake (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1976); and Wayne L. Wahlquist, et al. Atlas of Utah (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1981).