Thursday, December 16, 2010


Once found in Minnesota, but
now is evidently extinct here...

In 1823, Mr. Keating noticed the Salt springs in Minnesota State and Dacotah Territory, far south of the boundary line.  Even at that early period in the history of the Settlements on Red River, five hundred dollars were cleared by one individual during one winter from the sale of the salt he had manufactured from springs near Pembina.  The price of salt in the Settlement was then six dollars per barrel weighing eighty pounds.  At a spring on Saline River, south of the boundary line, Major Long's party found the Salicornia herbacea growing very abundantly around it.  "Mr. Schweinitz states, on the authority of Mr. Nuttal, that this is the only inland locality of this plant, besides the Onondaga Salt Springs in the State of New York."

- From Report of the Exploration of the Country between Lake Superior and the Red River Settlement (1859)

Early in the exploration period of Minnesota, note was made of a potential bonanza.  It wasn't about gold, but...salt.1

Salt was a commodity highly prized during the settlement period and even beyond, for food preservation prior to refrigeration.

A reader of this blog some time ago sent me a link (from which one of the quotes is made below) about a Humboldt salt well.  Although it was not the first knowledge of salt in the region by any means, for awhile the portentous news brought much speculation.

As you will read below, however, other finds in other places overshadowed Minnesota salt finds, and they were never developed because of it...

It has been known for many years that copious salt springs existed in the valley of the Red River of the North...Some of the earliest French explorers, notably Sieur Du Luth, mentions the fact that the Indians exhibited salt which they said had been obtained in the vicinity of certain lakes in the western prairies, said to be fifteen or twenty days travel further west.

...South of the international boundary several deep wells have been sunk within a few years for the purpose of getting a supply of water for stock and farming purposes. Some of these have given an artesian overflow of brine. The first of this kind in Minnesota was sunk at St. Vincent, which is on the Red river of the North at the crossing of the international boundary. This well was 165 feet deep, and only penetrated the drift deposits, the greatest thickness being taken up with a fine lacustrine clay, 112 feet in perpendicular thickness. Under this was found to be coarse gravel and sand which afforded a copious overflow of saltwater. This water was not carefully analyzed, though Dr. Perley, at Fort Pembina, made tests sufficient to show it was a brine principally of chloride of sodium, but contained a considerable quantity of magnesium and calcium.

Recently another well has been sunk on the Valentine farm, at Humboldt, about six miles southeast from St. Vincent, on the line of the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba railway. This also gives a strong salt water, which rises under natural hydrostatic pressure several feet above the ground. The water is clear, and effervesces slightly on exposure to the air and the removal of the pressure.

The section penetrated by this well was the same as that at St. Vincent, but extends much deeper. The salt water was found to rise first from a bed of gravel and sand at a depth of 165 feet, but in small quantity. Between 170 feet and 180 feet, the flow of brine became very copious...

Of the mineral ingredients [analyzed] this gives 82.8 per cent chloride of sodium...This gives it more than the average per cent of chloride of sodium found in the Michigan brines, while the total solid matter in solution is only from one-third to one-half as much.

There is an interesting question presented by these salt springs and deep wells, of the Red River Valley: From what formation does the brine issue primarily? The horizon from which the brine issues at Humboldt appears to be in the Cambrian. It seems to pervade several geological horizons, from the summit of the Devonian downward to the Potsdam — but only superficially, the original source being higher than the Devonian. It is confined by the overlying sheet of impervious clay of which the drift mainly consists in the Red River Valley, and is held under hydrostatic pressure by the downward pressing fresh waters that enter the same pervious gravel-and-sand stratum at higher levels toward the east, south and west. Where the salt springs occur it finds escape to the surface through openings in the clay-sheet. These springs seem to be most frequent and copious in Manitoba, along a belt of country running east and west, where, for some reason, the driftsheet is much less thick than it is further south. That brine so pure and so strong should be found at so great a distance, both stratigraphically and geographically from its source, indicates the purity and strength of the brine in its native strata. It remains for the future to determine whether these salt deposits shall become economically of importance to the Northwest.

- From State Geologist Report of 1884, Section VI - Humboldt Salt Well in Kittson County

Interest in Minnesota's natural resources was rekindled by the state's participation in the World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition. As preparation for this major New Orleans fair of 1884-85, the state appropriated funds and named Oliver Gibbs, Jr., to serve as its commissioner. One of the many units placed under Gibbs's general supervision was the Department of Geology, Fauna and Flora headed by Winchell. As part of his large exhibit Winchell collected specimens of Minnesota rocks and minerals including catlinite, building stones, hematite, and sodium chloride.

Winchell's salt sample was processed from brine obtained from an artesian well located at Humboldt in northwestern Kittson County. This flow, which was in Minnesota's most likely salt area and near the springs reported by Long and Keating in 1823, was discovered alongside the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway. Nearly 83 percent of the solids in the Humboldt brine consisted of sodium chloride, which Winchell noted was a higher percentage than that of the Michigan brines. Compared to the Michigan waters, however, the Humboldt well water contained only from one-third to one-half as much solid material; thus, the extraction process was more laborious. Nonetheless, Winchell was pleased that he was able to exhibit for the first time two new Minnesota products—salt and iron ore—at the New Orleans Exposition.

Winchell was careful not to magnify the significance of the Humboldt well. He cautiously observed that "It remains for the future to determine whether these salt deposits shall become economically of importance to the Northwest." Although Winchell proved that salt at least in a small quantity could be extracted from Minnesota brine, he did not prove that such production was commercially feasible. By the time of the New Orleans Exposition, fine salt was selling for $1.45 to $1.50 a barrel or only about a half cent a pound. This marketing came at a time when the nation was on the eve of major salt finds in Kansas. The Kansas strikes as well as heavy production in Texas, California, and Utah made the commodity commonplace and relatively inexpensive, so there was no inducement to develop Minnesota's brines, which were marginal at best.

Whatever future Winchell may have anticipated for Minnesota salt never materialized. Thus, the state's long-standing quest was, in the final analysis, merely wishful thinking bolstered by some frontier hucksterism with an end product of but one jar of salt.

- From Minnesota's Quest for Salt, by William E. Lass (MNHS History Magazine, Winter 1990)

1 - Our first information of that salt region was from a soldier in the expedition (1823). He says that they had been traveling for several days over a vast rolling plain, with no trees or water, the troops and horses were almost famishing with thirst, when they came suddenly upon the shore of a beautiful lake, about half a mile in diameter, sunk down deep in the plain, it resembling more a vast "sink hole." From the height above the waters, a vast snow bank appeared to line its shore, but, upon examination, it proved to be an encrustation of salt as pure and white as snow. The waters of the lake, also, were also of the strongest brine. So strong was it, that one bathing in it upon coming out would be covered with the white crystallization of salt. If this salt region be as rich as it is supposed to be, a railroad projected into it would prove to be the best stock in the country. Here are mines of undeveloped wealth more extensive, more durable, and more important than all the gold regions beyond the rocky mountains. We are informed also, that at a very short distance below the surface the pure rock salt lies in strata like coal or lime rock. We hope the attention of the public and the government will be turned to the subject. There is a region lying in our immediate neighborhood almost unknown, containing more intrinsic wealth than any State in the Union, and which would yield an annual income probably equalling the entire revenues of the country.