Old Salt Lake | Virtual Museum
Report by Galen Hunter
[ Page updated - October 1, 2021 ]
This report features selected historical resources clarifying the context of what happened to the natural resources at the Old Salt Lake site. Attention is given to how the salt and fresh water extracted from the site was used and how the use shaped the cultural landscape of Southern California and beyond. The report begins with the work of Carl Sauer who defined the cultural landscape approach. In 1925, while a professor of geography at the University of California at Berkeley, Carl Sauer published a paper called "The Morphology of Landscape". The article has been influencial and is still cited today. In "The Morphology of Landscape" is a paragraph (Figure 1) which is a rare, clear explanation of the idea behind the ubiquitous use of the word "development" by nearly all professional people today, particularly by consultants and those doing history and government work. The idea is explained by Sauer as "postulates". In his postulate (3) description note the sequence and climax thinking and ultimately the story is useful rational:
"that the structural elements may be placed in series, especially into developmental sequence, ranging from incipient to final or completed stage.", "[ ... ] the organic analogy has proved most useful throughout the fields of social inquiry."
"It is a working device, the truth of which may perhaps be subject to question, but which leads nevertheless to valid conclusions" [footnote added which reads] "The assumption "as if" advanced by Hans Vaihinger [...]"
OK, perhaps the use of the development postulate by professionals doesn't lead to valid conclusions. The Old Salt Lake site is both a classic instance of and reality check on the use of the development story by professionals. The natural resources of the site have been devastated by development. The site has been so devastated by development that the memory of the use of it's natural resources to shape the cultural landscape of Southern California has been footprinted by the development postulate/story. What follows is an emergency salvage of the memory of the use of the salt and fresh water from the site.
[Figure 1 - Detail of paper "The Morphology of Landscape" by Carl Sauer, 1925]
The following historical resource is actual context about the development story of the City of Los Angeles in terms of the salt extracted from the Old Salt Lake. Before the City of Los Angeles became one of the largest metropolitan cities in the world, it was El Pueblo de Los Ángeles (Pueblo). The Old Salt Lake, or Salinas, as it was called in the Spanish and Mexican eras -- the lake itself and the salt extracted from it was the common property of the Pueblo not within the boundary of Rancho San Pedro and the salt was assumed to be essential to the growth or development of the Pueblo as evidenced by the following text from the article within the 1948 publication in The Quarterly: Historical Society of Southern California titled "Ordinances and Regulations of Los Angeles 1832-1888: Part I" by Marco R. Newmark. On page 32 of the article is text Newmark compiled from what the Mexican authorities of the Pueblo in 1844 ordained:
"On July 3, because there was a shortage of salt in the city, due to the lack of management in the only local salt works, it was ordained that the salt works be placed under the jurisdiction of the court and that citizens must obtain the permission of the authorities before taking any salt from said salt pits."
To be clear, there is another historical resource in the Los Angeles City Archives from the Pueblo period confirming the salt lake site and salt was considered common property of the Pueblo. The resource is the original documents which resulted in a June 19, 1835 ordinance and regulation by Pueblo authorties for the Pueblo to tax the missions for the salt they extracted from the salt lake. In order to keep this report brief, a separate future exhibit/report may be created featuring the interesting discussion of the matter in these 1835 documents.
The following historical resource is provided as context about the development story of the basin of Los Angeles and beyond in terms of the salt extracted from the Old Salt Lake. The resource is selected text from United States Army Major Edward Ord's second journal of his reconnaissance of the Los Angeles basin in the form of a letter Ord sent to Major E. R. S. Canby in November 1849.
This is a description of the Los Angeles basin in 1849 in terms of cattle. These cattle required salt. A working theory is the salt was obtained from the Old Salt Lake because the celebrated pioneers of Los Angeles County were patrons of the salt works at the Old Salt Lake for a reason. Many of the pioneers made their fortunes with cattle, in part because, in the late Mexican period and then into the first years of the American period, they did not have to pay for the salt they extracted from the salt lake because it was considered common property of the Pueblo. While Ord's letter is evidence of the importance of the cattle culture to the cultural landscape of Southern California, it may also be important evidence of salt extracted from the salt lake to the development story of the cultural landscape of the Southern California. Somebody could do the research and calculate how much salt would have been needed to feed the number of cattle mentioned and compare that amount to their research of historical records of the production of salt at the salt lake. Perhaps there is a correlation.
Also, note the text "long journeys north to carry beef to the mines". This text is referring to the gold mines in Northern California. Apparently, the salt from the Old Salt Lake helped feed the American 49'ers in Northern California. Perhaps this working theory provides more insight into the meaning of the text on the historical marker in front of the power plant in Redondo Beach today. The text reads "This marker locates the site near which the Indians and early California settlers came to obtain their salt, which at many times was more valuable than gold." Anyway in 1849 Ord wrote:
"[ ... ] From San Juan the road turns inland and leads north and for six or eight miles through low prairie hills to the South end of Los Angeles plain. These plains extend from San Juan on the S.E. to Canenga on the N.W. a distance of about seventy miles; on the left the coast & harbor of San Pedro (no survey of them has yet been made except by the English) on the right a range of low hill, and farther inland the face of the Sierra Madre and the San Bernardino, from which flows into the plains three small rivers, the Santa Anna, the San Gabriel and the Los Angeles. Their waters last with but little intermission, tho' in the fall they sink into the sand, to rise again the lower down the plain in sundry Springs and wet places. In the Spring these plains are covered with grass, geese, flowers and cattle. The grass dries in the summer the geese fly away, the flowers die and the cattle remain to fatten on the hay. Formerly they used to kill them in the fall for their hides and tallow, but now there are no more hide-droguers and the cattle have to perform long journeys north to carry beef to the mines. [ ... ]"
"I reckoned about ten grazing farms on the Santa Ana containing in all about 40,000 cattle and 10,000 horses about the same number on the Los Angeles and about twice that number on the San Gabriel [ ...}"
[Figure 2 - Photograph "The Redondo Plant", from February 24, 1912 Journal of Electricity, Power and Gas, page 162. The Huntington power plant in Redondo Beach was built on the sand dune between the salt lake and the pebble beach. The photograph is looking northwest across the surface of the lake.]
The following historical resources are provided as context about the development story of the basin of Los Angeles and beyond in terms of the fresh water extracted from the Old Salt Lake.
The Story Begins with Water
[ Under construction ] - Adding more historical resources showing: 1) the importance of fresh water from the Old Salt Lake site was essential to Huntington's power plant and, 2) the importance of the power plant to the cultural landscape of Southern California today and therefore the importance of the fresh water extracted from the lake is to the cultural landscape of Southern California today and, 3) the memory of the fresh water importance has been footprinted by the development story, etc.