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The Upper Thumb Led in Michigan Salt

The first successful attempt to manufacture salt in Michigan was made by the East Saginaw Salt Manufacturing Company in 1859. The success of this company led to a rapid development of the industry in the Saginaw Valley where the blocks were operated in connection with sawmills.

Salt Well Operations
Salt Well Operations in the 1800s

The industry soon spread to Midland and St. Louis and the lumbering towns on the shores of Lake Huron. Towns such as Caseville, Port Crescent, Port Austin, New River, Port Hope, Harbor Beach, and White Rock on the south side of Saginaw Bay; and Tawas City, East Tawas, Au Sable, and Oscoda to the north all started salt operations. A salt well was sunk in Bay Port but never had any production. By 1888 there were 127 companies listed in Michigan producing 5.2 million barrels of salt annually. Michigan produced almost half of the nation’s salt in the 1870-1880s.

Salt Production in Huron County

The availability of salt deposits in the Thumb have been evident since ancient times. The Sand Ridge Indian Trail which started near Saginaw and wound its way around the Thumb to Harbor Beach was known as a path in which to access rich hunting and fishing areas of the area. It also provided access to three salt licks which attracted game.

Salt Wells in Port Austin

The first salt well in Huron county was sunk by Ayres and Co., at Port Austin in 1863. Later a salt block was erected, and the industry gradually spread to Caseville, Port Crescent, Grindstone City, New River (1874), Port Hope (1874), Harbor Beach, (aka Sand Beach 1876), and White Rock (1872). A 2000 foot well and block was also erected at Old Bay Port but was never in operation.

Salt Wells in Caseville


The brine wells extracted from the Berea sandstone which occurs at depths varying from 495 feet at White Rock to 1,770 feet at Caseville.

Salt Wells in Port Hope

The Salt Industry Declines in the Thumb

Huron County Salt Companies in the 1800s
Huron County’s Salt Companies in the 1800s

That the salt industry was very largely dependent upon lumbering operations. The salt block operations depended on the sawdust, bark and trimmings from the sawmills for fuel. Wood fuel for steam and pan evaporation lasted until the forests were gone, as a result, when lumbering ceased major operations in the Thumb it became too costly to used alternative fuel such as coal.

Caseville's Salt Operations
Caseville’s Salt Operations in the 1800’s


All salt production operations from the 14 companies ceased in Huron county in 1896, therefore by the early 1900s all the lake shore plants had disappeared. Towns such as Port Crescent and New River no longer existed.

Ruins of Port Hope Salt Company

Related Reading

Sources

  • The brine and salt deposits of Michigan, their origin, distribution and exploitation by Cook, Charles Wilford, 1882-
  • Publication 8. Geological Series 6. Mineral Resources of Michigan with Statistical Tables of production and value of mineral products for 1910 and prior years
  • C.M. Davis’ Readings in the Geography of Michigan (1964).

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