The Salt Museum is along the Onondaga Lake (the Onondaga Lake Thruway) in Syracuse, NY. We drove through the city to the Salt Museum and ate our picnic lunch at the comfortable park there.
A friendly seagull landed near my van window while I munched my sandwich. I tossed him a piece of my potato chip and he let me snap his photo.
While we ate, I briefed the kids on a little history of Onondaga Lake. This lake was once extremely polluted. As a kid, it was a miserable trip to pass the lake on a humid summer day– the stench of sewage rose up and sat at the bottom of one’s throat for the rest of the drive through the city. In the 80s, a movement was made to clean up the lake.
Onondaga Lake is not a beautiful lake, but at least it is cleaner now. Swaths of frothy algae still rest on its steely gray surface; lethargic waves burp blandly across the dismal surface.
A sturdy pier juts out from the park’s lawn. We finished our lunch and sauntered out to see a pair of ducks swimming. Every once in a while an enormous fish flashed to the surface. They looked as big as the ducks! I wonder what kind of fish they were; trout, perhaps?
The Salt Museum is a mere jaunt from the lake shore. Admission is free. The museum is a very large barn built in the fashion of what a salt factory was like “way back when.”
The young man at the desk was kind and asked us where we were from. There was no guest book to sign (I always sign guest books), but he handed us some brochures for our self-guided tour. The kids took off in willy-nilly directions. Many of the displays were “hands-on.”
There were many displays, everywhere. I found it to be a bit confusing. Even with the brochure, it took a while to acclimatize to the dim lighting and follow the scattered bits of displays everywhere. My kids headed straight for the tool section.
A cooper (maker of barrels) was an important tradesman for the mines.
My son tried his hand at turning some kind of lathe machine.
The Onondaga Indians knew of the salty waters long before the “white man” appeared. The Indians believed the waters to have an evil spirit because the waters were so bitter with brine. Father Simon LeMoyne, in 1654, visited the area with the Indians and tasted the waters. He realized the spring to be a salt spring, and boiled some of it down to salt.
Syracuse supplied much of the nation’s salt for many years. Later, westward expansion led to discoveries of western salt mines (such as Utah), and by the 1920’s Syracuse’s salt businesses had declined considerably.
Salt in Syracuse was never mined from the ground outright. Salt came from the plentiful waters (lakes and swamps) of the area. There were two ways the salt was taken from these briny waters: solar extraction (evaporation) and direct thermal extraction (boiling). Obviously, allowing the sun to evaporate the water (thus leaving salt crystals behind) was the least strenuous and more energy efficient. However, it was a lengthy process and the nation needed its salt now! So the most popular method of salt extraction was thermal– boiling the water and extracting the salt.
The museum centers mainly on this method of salt extraction. Drills and various tools were displayed. Plaques gave all the details.
Men toiled for 18 hours in these places. Fires must be kept burning to keep the water boiling at the evaporation point. Here’s a shot of the fire pit:
It was a very interesting visit. I’d always known that Syracuse was called the “Salt City,” and knew that the city sat on marshy salt springs, but never knew the ins and outs of the salt extraction business that put Syracuse on the map.
On a personal note, my grandfather had a small variety store in the city during the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I think it was on Park Street, but I am not sure. That section of the city, where his store sat, was slowly sinking. Shortly before my grandfather retired (in the late 70s), the steps to his store– where we once had to walk three steps up– had sunk so much that we had to walk two steps down. I don’t think the store exists anymore, as I believe the city demolished that part of the street for a park.