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Old Salt Lake | Virtual Museum

Exhibit 22

1960 Salt Works Essay by Charles Hillinger

A traditional historical "Vignette" about the lake site and salt works, which was published on page 170 of the 1960 edition of the Redondo Union High School yearbook "The Pilot", is transcribed and introduced.


We know the California writer Charles Hillinger is the person who wrote those five paragraphs about the lake and salt works on page 170 of the 1960 edition of the Redondo Union High School yearbook because he is mentioned as the writer in the acknowledgements page of the yearbook. It was a tradition of the high school yearbook to have local history experts contribute to the historical vignettes the school would occasionally publish. The 1927 and 1960 editions of the yearbook being outstanding instances of this old literary heritage.

Hillinger's 1960 salt works essay is significant because of its framing and descriptive phrases. Hillinger intuitively understands what is important about this site - the mystery of how the natural resources worked. Consider some of the interesting words and phrases he uses, "Geologists undoubtedly have the scientific explanation, but they have kept it secret" and "through the strange alchemy effected by time and change" and his concluding sentence, "Where are the buried springs of yesteryear?" His framing on how various peoples wondered about the natural resources of the site is sublime. His words about what happened to these natural resources echo an older literary tradition, before the high school was there, a public literary voice going all the way back to the Chautauqua Assembly of old Redondo.

To answer Hillinger's most excellent questions is difficult because it is ironic. To answer involves scrutiny of several facts Charles Hillinger mentions in his essay about why and how the salt works ended. Hillinger made the mistake, as so many others, of simply referring to a single sentence explanation for the demise of the salt works written in the earlier 1907 classic essay about the salt lake by the great J. M. Guinn. Guinn, was a prolific writer and got some important facts wrong about how and really why the salt works ended. You can't try and answer Hillinger's great questions without scrutiny of how and why the salt works itself ended.

The incorrect conventional local historical wisdom about how the salt works ended, which Hillinger and the poem is beautifully repeating in this high school publication is ironic because these factual errors have been and are currently being used by corporations, for instance in their "Environmental Impact Reports" and the like, to legitimize their devastation (past, present and future) of the original natural resources at the site. The salt works actually ended later than conventionally known and due to corporate ecological and historical footprint.

Along with Hillinger's text on page 170 of the 1960 high school yearbook is the classic Redondo Salt Works Photo and a nice poem about the salt works which likely was written by someone else.

[ Image - page 170 ] :

______ [ Transcribed ] _____

Why should this lagoon, 200 yards long, set back from the Pacific more than a city block and higher by six to eight feet, fed by bubbling springs along its western shore and not the ocean (unless subterraneously?) at all be so salty? And, strangest riddle of all, why should this brackish bay, ten times the salinity of the ocean, have fresh water wells a scant twenty yards away?

Indians first wondered at it as they evaporated water from the salina in huge earthen bowls, utilizing the rays of the sun; Mexican paisanos speculated, idling in the shade while solar evaporation worked for them, or as they boiled salina in kettles over open hearths to extract the rough white crystals; laborers for Johnson & Allanson (1852-1855) and the Melluses, husband and wife (1855-60; (1860-82)?, must have wondered. Geologists undoubtedly have the scientific explanation, but they have kept it secret.

Until the making of the Salton Sea and the extension of the Southern Pacific to Yuma (1881), Salt Lake was Southern California’s chief source of salt, worked co-operatively by any who wished until private enterprise made it briefly pay. To consolidate, the New Liverpool Company of Salton purchased the salt works (circa 1892) and shut it down.

Those who worked the Old Salt Works were a breed apart. Muscle maintained the plant and sweat made her go. The Greeks, the Mexicans, the Irishers, The Swedes, the Italians – tough men dried lean by awful heat and hard manual jobs unrelieved by much machinery – shouted, cursed, sang in their dozen dialects. Like their blood brothers the sailors out in the ships and on the deck they were wondered at and talked about by respectable matrons with kissable daughters. But like the men of the sea, the men of the salt did not noticeably swell the local jail.

In this photograph, taken about 1895, the barn-like boiler works with its 48 kettles is idle, and the windmills which once pumped the salina into cement vats similar to those in the right foreground have disappeared. The lagoon has become a marsh, the terror of mothers with venturesome children and the subject for many an irate letter to the editor and city councilmen. Six years later the old machinery was removed and the last remnants of the works were torn down. Gradually the dangerous sump was filled in, much of it with moonstones gathered from the beach. Then, in 1907, the Pacific Light and Power Company began its first plant, utilizing thousands of moonstones and three million dollars. In 1910 the plant was completed, and salt, through the strange alchemy effected by time and change, had been converted to power. Where are the buried springs of yesteryear?

And if the salt
Should lose its
Saltness, it is
As dust in the
Mouth. Redondo
Lost its salt
Works to a vast
Artificial sea
And cheap rail
Rates. From the
Old Lake sprang
Light and power.
Where once the
Paisano lazed,
Indian crouched,
Stripped brawn
Tended hot fires,
And sea gulls
Swooped, and
Swimmers could
Not sink, light
Created cities.

______ [ / Transcribed ] ______

"Acknowledgements" [ excerpt ]:
"Mr. Charles Hillinger, who wrote perceptively and well of the early redondo salt industry".