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Great Salt Lake Minerals Extraction

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This page was last updated on September 16, 2016.

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Salt

The following comes from "The Salt Industry Was One of the First Enterprises" by Jeffrey D. Nichols, in History Blazer, July 1995:

Sodium chloride, or common salt, is one of the most useful and sought-after substances on earth. It has long been used to flavor otherwise bland foods and to preserve perishables in the absence of refrigeration. The various inhabitants of Utah over the millennia have recognized the value of the Great Salt Lake and its surrounding salt flats. The lake is, of course, the remnant of a much larger ancient inland sea that scientists have dubbed Lake Bonneville. As the lake shrank over time, the concentration of minerals in its waters, including salt, increased, while the resulting dried-up areas became coated with salt to a depth of several feet.

Father Escalante's 1776 journal noted that local Indians used the surrounding salt deposits for their needs. Mountain man Jedediah S. Smith obtained salt near the lake and took some to William Henry Ashley's fur party in 1825. John C. Fremont and Kit Carson mentioned the easy availability of the mineral along the lake shore, but since most immigrant parties already carried sufficient salt, the lake shore did not attract many overland travelers in need of the mineral.

The first Mormon settlers visited the lake on July 28, 1847. Brigham Young and others gathered salt from the surrounding rocks and noted how easy it was to simply scoop up the product; this method would be used by some well into the 20th century, although salt gathered that way contained impurities. In August 1847 a committee was assigned to get salt for the new settlement; they returned four days later with 125 bushels of coarse salt that they had shoveled out of deposits, along with some fine white table salt obtained by boiling. Historian John Clark said that the Mormons considered the salt deposits to be a communal resource, much like water or timber.

A crude, temporary saltworks, including apparatus for boiling down lake water, had been built by 1848. In 1849 the LDS Quorum of the Twelve directed a company of men to establish a permanent saltworks. By 1850 Charley White and his family were operating the saltworks on the lake shore opposite Black Rock and producing fine, coarse, and common grades of salt. White advertised that he would accept "cattle, grain, flour, hams, bacon, cheese, butter, pigs, sheep, lumber, poles, or firewood" in exchange for salt. The demise of the White saltworks is shrouded in mystery; a persistent local legend maintains that the Whites separated and that Mrs. White continued to run the works until she was murdered by unknown persons who wanted her cattle.

Salt even entered into the Utah War of 1857-58. Washington authorities had reasoned that Johnston's Army was going to Salt Lake City and therefore did not need to be supplied with a commodity that was relatively costly in the East. Government bungling and indecision, however, meant that the Army was forced to winter at Camp Scott near Fort Bridger, well short of its Salt Lake Valley destination. There the federal troopers spent a miserable winter, complaining about the insipid food. Besides salt, tobacco, sugar, and coffee were scarce and expensive; whiskey cost $12 a gallon when it was available. Brigham Young, hearing of Johnston's troubles, sent several mule loads of supplies to the general, along with a note urging him to accept the gift (and leave). The proud Johnston contemptuously refused the gift, although apparently his men accepted it gladly. Wilford Woodruff reported that an Indian named Ben Simons earned over $2,000 selling salt to the Army.

The laborious boiling method of obtaining salt declined in use in the 1870s, to be replaced by specially constructed solar evaporation ponds. Initially, saltmakers relied on the wind to fill their ponds; when this proved unreliable they installed pumps. The resulting product tended to be bitter and damp, until by trial and error the saltmakers established the fractional crystallization process, which used a series of ponds to create a nearly 100 percent pure product.

The demand for Utah salt greatly increased when the Butte, Montana, silver mines opened, since salt was used in the reduction of ore. Until railroad lines were constructed, the salt was carried by mule load to the mines at the rate of $200 a ton. Eventually, the Utah Central, Utah Southern, Utah Eastern, and Utah Western railroads connected the saltworks with mining customers at Butte, Juab County's Tintic District, Park City, and elsewhere.

The final two decades of the 19th century saw the salt industry go from a highly decentralized, competitive business to a near monopoly. Eventually, the Inland Salt Company and its corporate successors dominated the industry, producing coarse salt for industrial use as well as refined table salt. In 1990 salt production in Utah totaled almost 1.8 million short tons with a value of $50.4 million--considerably less than the $200/ton rate paid by the Butte mine owners more than a century ago.

Sources: John A. Clark, "History of Utah's Salt Industry, 1847-1970" (M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1971); "Pioneer Salt Industry," MS in Utah State Historical Society Library subject files; David E. Miller, "The Great Salt Lake: Its History and Economic Development" (Ph.D. diss. University of Southern California, 1947); Dale L. Morgan, The Great Salt Lake (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1947).

Other Minerals

Studies by the U. S. Geological Survey showed that it was commercially feasible to extract minerals, in addition to salt, from Great Salt Lake. This included chlorine, magnesium and potash, along with numerous other minerals. Large scale extraction of minerals from Great Salt Lake began in 1961, after the Utah Land Board had granted a monopoly lease to 120,000 acres of mineral rights on the lake's south shore, with the lease extended twice and expiring in 1969. On December 1, 1964, the Utah Land Board held hearings about a proposed lease of mineral extraction along the lake's northeastern shore, near Little Mountain, west of Ogden. (Ogden Standard Examiner, November 29, 1964)

February 23, 1965
Utah State Land Board adopted new rules and regulations that would allow the "free" extraction of minerals on state-owned lands surrounding Great Salt Lake. One of the companies with a pending application to allow minerals extraction was Lithium Corporation of America. (Ogden Standard Examiner, February 24, 1965)

The U. S. Congress passed Senate Bill S.265 (popularly known as the Great Salt Lake Shorelands bill) in June 1966 that transferred lands surrounding the Great Salt Lake, but above the lake's water line, from federal control to the State of Utah. This greatly expanded the land available for state mineral leases, with a direct impact on potential development of the mineral areas along the northeast shore, west of Ogden, and along the southwest shore, west of Grantsville.

PL 89-441 (S 265) -- Confirm in the State of Utah title to lands lying below the meander line of the Great Salt Lake. MOSS (D Utah) -- 1/6/65 -- Senate Interior and Insular Affairs reported Feb. 17, 1966 (S Rept 1006). Senate passed March 4. House Interior and Insular Affairs discharged. House passed, amended, April 4. Senate asked for a conference April 7. House agreed to conference April 18. Conference report filed May 18 (H Rept 1540). House and Senate agreed to conference report May 19. President signed June 3.

(Read the full text of Public Law 89-441, at GPO.gov)

July 14, 1965
Southern Pacific railroad purchased 8,000 acres in the vicinity of the mineral extraction site. The purchase was from Basin Land and Livestock Company, which had been using the land for sheep and cattle grazing. (Ogden Standard Examiner, July 14, 1965)

In May 1967, Great Salt Lake Minerals and Chemicals Corporation began building a large plant for commercial extraction of potassium sulfate, sodium sulfate, and magnesium chloride, along with common salt. The plant included 17,000 acres of evaporation ponds just north of Little Mountain, west of Ogden on the lake's eastern shore. (Peter Behrens, "Industrial Processing of Great Salt Lake Brines by Great Salt Lake Minerals & Chemicals Corporation", Great Salt Lake, a Scientific, Historical and Economic Overview, p. 223)

May 9, 1967
Ground was broken on a new minerals extraction plant near Little Mountain. The plant was owned by Great Salt Lake Minerals and Chemicals Corporation, a joint venture between Lithium Corporation of America (51 percent) in the U. S., and Chemsalt (49 percent), the U. S. subsidiary of Salzdetfurth, A.G. in Germany. Production of mineral extracted from Great Salt Lake brines was to start in late 1969 or early 1970, with delays due to construction of the processing plants, and construction of evaporation ponds on 80,000 acres of leased state lands in the Bear River arm of Great Salt Lake, between Little Mountain and Promontory Point. The brine was to be pumped from the northwest arm of the lake because of it higher concentration. (Ogden Standard Examiner, May 9, 1967, "this morning")

September 1967
Construction was progressing on a large network of dikes, ponds, and connecting access roads covering the 80,000 acres of leased state-owned lands near Little Mountain. Upon completion, brine would be pumped into the ponds and allowed to evaporate for a period of two years before the minerals could begin to be harvested. In that interim two year period, the processing plants would be built. Chemsalt, Inc. was the U. S. subsidiary, wholly owned by Salzdetfurth, A.G. of Hanover, Germany. In June 1967, Lithium Corporation of America became the Lithium Division of Gulf Resources and Minerals Corporation, by merger of the two companies. (Ogden Standard Examiner, September 10, 1967; February 8, 1968)

(See also: U. S. Patent 3,342,548 for a process to extract lithium and potash from Great Salt Lake brine, approved on September 19, 1967)

April 1968
Pumping of brine into 12,000 acres of evaporation ponds began in late April 1968. (Ogden Standard Examiner, April 28, 1968; Salt Lake Tribune, May 1, 1968)

February 1969
Great Salt Lake Minerals was to begin production of potassium sulphate and sodium sulphate in late 1970, and production of lithium and magnesium chloride by late 1971. Dow Chemical would be a major customer of magnesium chloride, buying it to refine it into magnesium metal, possibly at a plant located in the Little Mountain vicinity. (Ogden Standard Examiner, February 9, 1969)

December 3, 1970
The plant of Great Salt Lake Minerals and Chemicals Corporation was formally dedicated as being completed and ready for production, with a projected eventual annual production of 240,000 tons of potassium sulphate and 150,000 tons of sodium sulphate. The cost of construction of the plant was reported as being $30 million. The production cycle was reported as being 18 to 24 months, for a particular body of water in the evaporation ponds, from freshly pumped brine from the lake, to harvested minerals. A symbolic first loaded rail car was moved through a ribbon stretched across the rail spur. During January 1971, a total of 120 cars of minerals had been shipped. (Ogden Standard Examiner, November 29, 1970; December 3, 1970; February 7, 1971)

September 23, 1971
Union Pacific formally completed its Little Mountain Branch, northwest of Ogden, serving the new industrial development complex northwest of Ogden, Utah, on the east shore of Great Salt Lake.

(Read more about Union Pacific's Little Mountain Branch)

After mid-May 1973, Great Salt Lake Minerals and Chemicals Corporation was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Gulf Resources and Chemical Corporation, which had "this week" purchased sole ownership of the joint venture from Kali and Salz AG, the successor to Salzdetfurth AG. (Ogden Standard Examiner, May 12, 1973)

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