Aug 29, 2010

Learn About New York State's Connection to Salt

Pick a sunny day, pack a lunch, and head to Onondaga Park. Take a self-guided tour of the Salt Museum where salt potatoes originated in the 1800s. Salt workers would boil their lunch of potatoes – usually the small cheaper potatoes called culls – in the brine creating what we now know as salt potatoes. They are a true Central New York food treat and not found elsewhere. Learn about Central New York’s salt production at the Salt Museum located adjacent to the Onondaga Lake parking lot.

The Native Americans shunned the salty water from the local springs because it was not the fresh water they favored. Plus, they preserved their food by drying it not by salting. It wasn’t until the Europeans, namely Father LeMoyne, arrived in the 1600s that they learned about the value of salt. But it wasn’t until 1788 that two Revolutionary War veterans, Asa Danforth and Comfort Tyler, arrived in the area and started the first salt works.

Even though Onondaga Lake is fresh water the saltwater brine came from springs around the lake. In 1806 the first well was dug and was operated by common hand pumps, which were followed by large drilling rigs. The brine was delivered to large kettles where it was boiled allowing the impurities called bittern to settle on the bottom. The salt crystals that formed on the top were removed with a wooden shovel and placed in splint ash baskets to drain and then stored for two weeks to dry.

A great deal of wood was needed to keep the kettles boiling. Between the wood needed for salt production and clearing the land for farming the woodlands became depleted. In the mid-1800s they began to use coal from Pennsylvania instead of wood but it increased the cost of production. They then changed to producing salt by the solar salt method whereby the brine was allowed to sit in huge outdoor vats to allow the impurities to settle and the water evaporated. As the crystals formed men would push them off to the “apron” and transferred the crystals to wooden buckets, which had holes in the bottom to allow drainage. Then the salt was taken to the salt warehouse. This process took place outdoors which meant weather was a major concern. It was the job of the salt boss to keep an eye on the weather. If rain looked eminent he would ring a bell and everyone – including children – would drop what they were doing to rush to the site and help cover the salt. By the late 1800s this way of making salt was obsolete and too expensive thus ending the local production of salt. However, at one time the area produced most of our nation’s salt giving Syracuse the name of “Salt City.”

After visiting the Salt Museum hop one of the free Wegman trams for a historic tour of Onondaga Lake Parkway. The leisurely four-mile, 50-minute ride on the East Shore Recreational Trail has an official starting point at the Griffin Visitor Center but there is a stop right outside the Salt Museum with other access points along the way.

Round out the day with a visit to St. Marie among the Iroquois and the Liverpool Willow Museum, originally the willow shop where the Hurst family carried on the willow weaving business in the shop from the 1800s until 1929.