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Old Salt Lake | Virtual Museum

Exhibit 1


1907, "Las Salinas (The Salt Pits)", by James M. Guinn, Publication of Historical Society of Southern California, Volume VII.


Image of top of first page of the essay as originally published. The entire essay by Guinn is transcribed below.


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LAS SALINAS (THE SALT PITS).

BY J. M. GUINN.

Under the Spanish and Mexican regime there were but few articles manufactured in California. The people were agriculturists and stock raisers. Few, if any, skilled mechanics came to the territory. There was no demand for their labor. Not only the few luxuries that the wealthier inhabitants were able to indulge in but also the necessities were shipped into the country. Even that very necessary condiment, salt, for many years after the first settlement of the country, was brought from Mexico, although there were salt springs and lakes near the settlements and fields of the ready-made article on the desert.

About the year 1815 the first expedition to secure a supply of salt set out from the pueblo of Los Angeles for the sink of the Colorado desert, where many years later the Liverpool Salt Works were established at Salton on the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Every spring after the winter rains were over and before it had grown oppressively hot on the desert an expedition was fitted out to make the trek for the yearly supply of salt for the villagers. The creaking old carretas with their massive wooden wheels were loaded with a supply of provisions and bedding. A detail was made from the Mission Indians to drive the oxen, an Indian to each ox; the adjacent missions joined in the trek and received a share of the salt. A squad of caballeros from the pueblo guards acted as a mounted escort to protect the cavalcade from the mountain Indians who were hostile and to prevent the Mission Indian ox-drivers from running away and joining their Gentile kinsmen.

When all was ready the caravan set out on its toilsome journey, across the green valleys of San Gabriel Mission's wide domains, up through the pass of San Gorgonio and down into the desert below the sea level where fields of crystaline salt lay glistening in the hot sunshine, but where now the waves of Salton Sea break on the desert strand.

The carts were quickly loaded and the return journey begun. It usually took about a month to make the jornada para sal - the journey for salt. On the return the salt was divided among the missions that had contributed help, and to the different households of the pueblo. The supply was intended to last a year.

Under Mexican rule a more liberal spirit prevailed and foreigners were allowed to settle in the country. Many of these were artizans and as a result some of the most needed and most used articles were manufactured in California. In the early '30's salt works were established at the Salinas, a place within the limits of what is now the seaport City of Redondo. Here there was a laguna or lake formed by the waters of salt springs which carried a high percentage of salt. The salt was extracted by boiling in kettles or by evaporation in the sun. It was found to be cheaper to manufacture salt than to bring the ready-made article from the desert. The treks to the desert ceased and the jornada para sal became one of the forgotten episodes of California history. I find no record of it in any history of the territory. My information was obtained many years ago from an old pioneer who was cognizant of these events.

The manufacture of salt increased until it became a paying institution. The paisanos of the old pueblo had salt to sell to their neighbors up and down the coast. The salt works seem to have been communal property. Each householder having a right to make salt or to share with his neighbors in the products of the salt pits. The missions derived their supply from the Salinas. This was resented by the Anti-Mission politicians of the pueblo one of the most active of whom was Juan de Dios Bravo or Brabo?John, Valiant of God?Juan was a vinatero?a wine merchant on a small scale. He was one of the landless and looked with avaricious eyes upon the missions' vast estates. He was a regidor in the Ayuntamiento of 1835. This was after the decree of secularization of the Missions had been passed by the Mexican Congress but before it had been enforced.

Juan, of the holy name, introduced into the Most Illustrious Ayuntamiento a resolution to place a tax on the salt and brea used by the Missions. In his argument in favor of a tariff he said, "The ex-Missions still maintain their proud old notions of being the owners of all the natural products of forest and field. They will not allow any wood to be taken to build a hut or to fence a field even when they are paid for it, alleging in justification of their refusal that there is not enough to supply the Indians of the ex-Missions." "Now admit," says Juan of the holy cognomen, "that these wretched people should have their wants supplied in preference to the people of this town, therefore I say the friars of the ex-Missions should pay a tax on the salt and brea from our springs they use for their Indians."

The eloquence of Juan, the Valiant, moved the town council to appoint a committee to consider his tariff for revenue scheme. At the next meeting the committee brought in the following report: "To the Most Illustrious Ayuntamiento:

"The committee appointed by you to consider the scheme proposed by Regidor Juan de Dios Brabo in relation to monopolizing the Salinas (salt pits,) and placing a duty on brea (mineral tar used for roofing), having examined said project thoroughly we find that in relation to selling the salt at public sale it is not feasible, being that the production is fortuitous and being that the Most Excellent Deputation must decide this matter and it should be informed of the same. In the meantime, a duty can be placed on salt of two dollars a bushel to neighboring Missions that might need it.

"In respect to placing a duty on brea we do not know that there has ever been a demand for the same by said Missions, but in the future if there should be the tribunal of this pueblo will fix a price which will be adjusted according to the quantity used. This is all the committee has to say on the matter.

"Angeles, June 19, 1835."

The Ayuntamiento adopted the committee's report and thereafter the frairs of the ex-Missions had to pay two dollars a bushel to salt their Indians but salt would not save them. After the American occupation of California the salt works seem to have been run on a co-operative plan, the operatives taking their pay in salt and disposing of it as best they could.

In 1853 Johnson & Allanson, a mercantile firm doing business in Los Angeles bought the works. The following account of the salt works is taken from the Los Angeles Star of September 26th, 1856:

"Situated about sixteen miles southwest from the City of Los Angeles is a salt lake or pond from which is manufactured salt of first rate quality. The lake is nearly two hundred yards wide by about six hundred long and is supplied by springs upon its western bank. It is about two hundred yards distant from the ocean, above which it is elevated from six to ten feet. It would appear at first sight that it was supplied from the ocean but such is not the fact as has been proved by frequent experiments. The existence of this lake has long been known to the natives of the country, and from it they were formerly in the habit of drawing their supply of salt by shoveling it up from the bottom. The missionaries who first settled here also knew of its existence and claimed its proprietorship but made no attempt to improve the natural resources of the lake.

"Some years since this valuable property came into the possession of two gentlemen of this city Messrs. Johnson and Allanson who have expended a large amount of capital in the erection of the necessary works for the manufacture of salt by artificial as well as solar evaporation.

"The water is drawn from the lake through an iron pipe by means of a force pump, and is conducted into a reservoir, from which it is led by a wooden pipe into the kettles in the boiling house. This building is about eighty feet long and contains fortyeight kettles, which are kept constantly heated. As the salt forms in the kettles it is removed and water added in proportion to the evaporation. The salt on being removed from the kettle is ready for market, only requiring time to dry. The process is very simple and the production of salt abundant from the intensely saline quality of the waters of the lake.

"In regard to the amount of fuel consumed it is estimated that each cord of wood produces a ton of salt. By solar evaporation the salt is produced at the cost of the tanks and attendance. There are five tanks in operation; they were cleaned up this week for the first time, and found to have answered all the expectations of the proprietors. That one in which the water was of least depth proved most productive.

"The daily average product of the kettles is five tons. They require to be cooled down for cleaning once in ten days. Each tank or vat. yields about a ton of salt in crystalized form. The salt is at present all hauled to the landing at San Pedro at a large expense.

"The water of the lake is so strongly impregnated with saline constituents, that a stick placed in it will be coated in ten days an inch thick with crystalized cubes. We saw some of them which were very beautiful.

"It is a singular fact that within twenty yards of the lake good fresh water is obtained within fifteen feet of the surface. Two wells of about this depth and about twenty feet apart supply fresh water to the workmen.

"Messrs. Johnson & Allanson intend sending samples of their salt packed in satin bags to the State Fair."

Johnson & Allanson endeavored to create a market for their product in San Francisco but they encountered that barrier that since the dawn of civilization has wrecked many a pioneer enterprise - the cost of transportation. They had to haul their products from the salt works to San Pedro in wagons, then lighter them out to anchorage. The freight charges on vessels up and down the coast then were high. It cost ten dollars to ship a barrel of flour from San Francisco to Los Angeles. When the product arrived at San Francisco beside the freight, there were wharfage charges, dravage. storage and commissions to middle men and other men. When the product finally reached the consumer the producer often faced a deficit actually had to pay a penalty for producing a needful and needed commodity. Salt could be shipped as ballast in sailing vessels from New York via Cape Horn to San Francisco, sixteen thousand miles, cheaper than it could be transported from the Salinas to the Ray City. The manufacturers were compelled to limit their production to the local demand and the scheme of building a great salt making center at the Salinas went a glimmering. Recently I obtained from Mr. George W. Hazard, whose father at one time was the manager of the Pacific Salt Works, as the Salinas was latterly called, the loan of an old account book which contains the business transactions of these works from 1854 to 1864. It gives in words and figures a terse history of that industry in its prime and in it decline but it stops short of its demise.

In 1854 when the first entries were made in the old book the industry was evidently in a flourishing state and wages were high. Erastus J. Richmond between November 1st, 1854 and April 1st, 1855 is credited with five months' labor at $200 per month, a total of $1,000. He is debited with "orders" to the amount of $1,000, but whether orders were for salt, cash or merchandise, the bookkeeper does not inform us?he knew and posterity might guess what Richmond got. Charles P. Brittan receives $100 per month. After April 1855 there was a cut in wages and in 1856 another cut. The wages of the ordinary employees had been reduced to $40 per month and in each man's account was an entry saying that 26 days shall constitute a month. There were no Saturday half holidays then, and no labor unions. The laborers put in ten good hours for a day's work. Looking over the list of the early employees at the salt works we find that nearly all of them were Americans, although the labor element of Southern California was then largely Mexican and Indian. The names of only three foreigners appear on the roll - Joaquin, the Mexican, Dutch John and Achilles Mores. The latter was a Greek and possibly a distant relative distant about three thousand years of the Greek demi-god Achilles, who was shot in the heel at the seige of Troy. A Trojan sharpshooter lodged an arrow in the one vulnerable spot in the make of the Greek hero. A modern saw bones would have amputated his heel. The operation would have been successful but the patient died all the same. The old Greek surgeon let him die with his heels on, which was a more glorious death for the hero than to be amputated to death by a saw bones.

Our modern Achilles did not lose his life at the seige of Salinas, although he was a splendid loser. He began work October 17th, by the 27th the record states, he had lost seven days, then he lost his job, and honest Dutch John, who seems to have been too poor to own a surname took his place. German Johanes had no Greek gods roosting in his family tree, but he knew how to make salt and that was as honorable an occupation as fighting Trojans.

There are a number of entries in this old account book that, while trivial in themselves, illustrate customs, usages and business methods of half a century ago. And for that reason are worth recording. There was a boarding house at the Salinas where the employees took their meals. Refugio Boteller seems to have had the contract to supply beef. Beef was sold at $4.00 per quarter of an animal, small or large. In the account with Refugio appears this item:

"One quarter of beef sent back because the meat had been taken off the ribs." The meat over the ribs was considered by the Californians the choice cut of the animal. Evidently Refugio, catering to the fastidious taste of some favored patron, had attempted to deprive the salt makers of a choice tit bit, but he discovered to his cost that the American working man is an autocrat in appetite, and will have the best the market affords.

A store was kept at the Salinas and the debits for articles sold give us the market price of some commodities fifty-five years ago - 25 pounds of sugar, $3.50; 100 pounds of flour, $6.00; a box of Lucifer matches, 50 cents, and three pieces of soap half a dollar. The size of the pieces is not given. Matches were just coming into general use. The smell of sulphur that always accompanied the lighting of the old style of match impressed the user with the idea that it was the invention of a gentleman named Lucifer, who is supposed to have a corner on all the brimstone in the infernal regions, hence the name, Lucifer match. In 1858 Johnson & Allanson sold the salt works to Francis Mellus, who was conducting a large mercantile business in Mellus Row, corner of Aliso and Los Angeles streets. A considerable amount of salt was still produced. One entry in the old account book named states that A. M. Hazard, who was the manager of the Pacific Salt Works for Mellus, delivered to him in August and September, 1859, 47,500 pounds of solar and lake salt. Francis Mellus died in 1860. His widow retained the works and continued to operate them until the business was finally abandoned. The boiling process of extracting was given up on account of the increased cost of fuel and the salt was extracted by evaporation only. Two crops were taken off each season. In 1879 four hundred and fifty tons were produced. In its crude state at that time it was sold at prices ranging from nine to thirteen dollars per ton, but when ground it brought from eighteen to twenty four dollars per ton. Mrs. Trudell (formerly Mrs. Mellus) owned a salt mill in Los Angeles where the salt was ground and put up for the market.

The extension of the Southern Pacific Railroad to Yuma in 1881 and the building of the Liverpool Salt Works at Salton in the desert where there were vast fields of salt ready made that could be had for the gathering, killed this old-time industry which for half a century had supplied Southern California with salt. The railroad followed the trail of the salt caravans of the early years of the last century but the iron horse consumed less hours in the journey than did the patient oxen weeks in dragging the cumbersome old carretas in the Jornada para sal.

Such, in brief, is a fragmentary and half forgotten chapter of the industrial history of Southern California. Many an enterprise that was launched in the long ago, fostered and promoted by the labor and limited capital of the pioneers of the territory has been crushed by the remorseless wheels of Progress; and the "demnition gwind" will go on and on forever. Sometimes in our optimistic moments we flatter ourselves that we are building for posterity, that future generations will rise up and call us blessed, that the structures we are rearing and the enterprises we are promoting will immortalize our names. Time passes. The memory of our deeds fades. The generations that follow us laugh in scorn at the puny structures we were so proud of, batter them down and build skyscrapers on their ruins.

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