The Great Salt Lake Mineral Industry

Linda Thatcher, Beehive History 16

Rumors of a salty lake somewhere in western America circulated for more than a hundred years before it was actually sighted by white men. The Dominguez-Escalante expedition of 1776, while not attempting to visit the Great Salt Lake, nonetheless recorded the lake on the expedition map drawn by Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, their cartographer, using information obtained from the Indians they encountered. Most likely the first white man to actually see the lake was Jim Bridger, who was employed by William Henry Ashley as a trapper in 1824-25. Capt. Howard Stansbury’s expedition in 1849 and 1850 made the first complete survey of the lake. After 1880 numerous explorations and surveys of the lake were made, mainly to analyze the water content and study the bird life. The earliest comprehensive study of the water resources was conducted by T. C. Adams in 1934-35.

Located in the lowest spot in a drainage basin of 22,060 square miles, the Great Salt Lake receives very little water from local sources. The rivers that flow into it come from the Rocky Mountains and the Colorado Plateau. The Great Salt Lake is a terminal lake that experiences marked fluctuations in size and surface depending upon the amount of rainfall and evaporation within its watershed. The lake consists of four distinct water bodies, each having its own ecological characteristics, brine content, and color, and ranging from nearly fresh water to between 6 and 12 percent solids, the bay waters nearest the main body of the lake having the higher concentrations of brine. Sodium chloride accounts for about 80 percent of the lake’s solids. Other salts are sodium sulfate (Glauber’s salt) and salts of
potassium, chlorine, sulfur, and calcium, and numerous trace elements such a lithium, bromine, and boron.

First Use of Lake Minerals

The use of the lake for its minerals was limited before the Mormons entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Most likely the local Indians obtained salt from the lake, but the first white men known to use salt from the lake were mountain men in Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company in the fall of 1825. Later John C. Fremont reported in his 1843-44 journal:

Today we remained at this camp, in order to obtain some further observations and to boil down the water which had been brought from workers with wheelbarrows on the salt beds, Great Salt Lake. the lake for a supply of salt. Roughly evaporated over the fire, the five gallons of water yielded fourteen pints of very fine-grained and
very white salt, of which the whole lake may be regarded as a saturated solution

Even though Fremont’s reports were published prior to the settlement of the Salt Lake Valley by the Mormons, the availability of salt did not influence their decision to settle the area. Soon after their arrival in the valley a group of men were sent to the lake to extract salt from the lake shore. They reported that they “prepared 125 bushels of coarse white
salt, and boiled down four barrels of salt water to one barrel of fine white table salt.” The salt deposits from the shore proved to be bitter tasting, and they found that a better quality salt could be obtained from boiling down the lake water itself, thus avoiding mud and other impurities.

To improve the quality and develop a profitable commercial enterprise, one group set up a salt-boiling apparatus near the south end of the lake. The exact location of this plant remains unknown. The product from this operation was unrefined, however, and those who wanted a superior grade of salt had to import it from Liverpool, England.

A permanent salt-boiling operation was established in the spring of 1850 by Charley White. John W. Gunnison reported that White could produce 600 pounds of salt per day in his six 60-gallon kettles. This plant operated until 1861. According to the 1870 census there was one salt producer in Utah, located in E. T. City, Tooele County, and owned by Joseph Griffith and William F. Moss. The Great Salt Lake rose to a high point in 1873, diluting the brine to about one-third. As a result, the salt
boilers had to burn about one-third more wood to obtain the same amount of salt as before.

Salt for the Silver Mills

The salt industry received a commercial boost with the discovery of silver in Montana in the mid-1860s. The chlorination process for the reduction of silver ore was developed about the same time, placing a heavy demand on producers to supply the mills with enough salt (sodium chloride) to use in converting the silver in the ore to silver chloride, which could then be dissolved by various solutions. As this and other new markets for salt opened, production and refining methods improved.

By 1873 the level of the lake had risen so much that many of the natural salt beds were covered with water. To compensate for the high water level, dikes were constructed across the entrance of coves and along the shore of the lake so that the periodic rise and fall of the lake could fill the ponds. By the 1880s permanent dikes had replaced earlier structures destroyed by high winds and tides. Companies engaged in salt production installed steam-powered pumps to help control the water levels because natural fluctuations of the lake could no longer be depended upon to fill the ponds.

In the latter part of the 19th century three companies assumed prominence in salt production: the Jeremy Salt Company, the Intermountain Salt Company, and the Inland Crystal Salt Company, the latter founded in 1889. The Jeremy firm finally failed, but the other two merged and operated under the successive names of Inland Crystal Salt Company and Royal Crystal Salt Company.

By the early 1890s salt companies in Utah could be placed in two categories, small companies that produced large quantities of salt to supply the silver-refining industry and larger companies that produced both refined table salt and salt for industrial use. The Inland Salt .
Company and its successor, Inland Crystal Salt Company, were such organizations.

Through the years there have been many changes in the way salt is produced. The process of obtaining salt from the brine has evolved from boiling the brine in large kettles to pumping lake water into a series of crystallization ponds where most of the insoluble materials settle out.

Other Lake Minerals

Sodium chloride, or common salt – used in the home, in many industrial processes, and for highway deicing, water softening, etc. -was the principal commodity extracted from the lake until the 1960s. Then the Great Salt Lake Minerals and Chemical Corporation started extracting other minerals as well: cake salt (Glauber’s salt, sodium sulfate], used in making paper and glass; potassium sulfate, used as a fertilizer; and ,magnesium chloride, converted to the metal magnesium (used in fireworks, alloys, etc.) and chlorine gas. In the mid-1960s NL Industries constructed solar evaporating ponds in Burmeister, Utah, and a pilot plant for producing cell feed was built at Lakepoint, Utah. In 1969 they built a magnesium plant at Rowley, Utah, to utilize brine from the Great Salt Lake. In 1978 Amoco began oil and gas drilling operations about seven miles from the shore of Great Salt Lake, leasing 600,000 acres from the state of Utah.

The wet years of the mid-1980s nearly brought an end to the lake’s mineral industry when the lake rose to almost 4,220 feet, expanding the shoreline and causing millions of dollars in damage. Today there are four companies extracting minerals from the lake: Great Salt Lake Minerals and Chemicals, Morton Salt; Akzo Salt, and American Salt. The lake contains approximately 90 billion dollars worth of minerals and will therefore continue to play an important role in Utah’s economy.