The Salt Museum in Syracuse

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.

Lake View from Museum Door

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.

Onondaga Lake Shore

Smooth Onondaga Lake

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?

Onondaga Lake From Pier

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.”

Salt Museum Entrance

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.

The Cooper

My son tried his hand at turning some kind of lathe machine.

Lathe Spinning

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.

Discovery Plaque

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.

Boiling method Plaque

Brine Bowls (2)

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:

Boiling Area

In the Firing 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.

About the Author

I've been traveling throughout New York State since I got the travel bug after touring the Herkimer Home on a school field trip as a youngster. We've been blogging about our travels since 2006 and have visited over half of New York's 62 counties so far.

Comments (6)

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  1. Ethel Stanton says:

    Dear Sir:

    I have visited the Salt Museum in Liverpool and am greatly pleased that you have created this website. It reminds me of our trip to this place, and also reminds me of a relative named Park Stephen Avery, who came to Syracuse and made his business manufacturing salt by boiling the brine in big
    vats like those on display in the Salt Museum.

    Ethel Stanton

  2. Sara Cullen Hittle says:

    Around 1887-89, my great grandfather was supposed to have worked in the Salt Mines in Syracuse, NY. The story has been told that he was killed in an accident there. A pick axe slipped and hit him in the chest and he died. His name was Edward or Edwin Cullen. Would it be possible for you to have access to any information? I live here in the mid-west and it is not likely that I will be able to visit NY anytime soon. But I’m trying to research a bit about my family.
    I would appreciate any information you might be able to supply.
    Thank you. Your site is very nice.
    Sara Hittle

  3. Andy Coccari says:

    I have lived in Syracuse on two different times and really like the area.
    My interest in the Salt Museum developed during my stays there.
    I am a collector of antique Salt Cellars (glass, silver plated and sterling silver).
    I would like to discuss this matter with you. I can be reacher by telephone: 631089301296, Cell: 6317049747.

  4. carolyn witty says:

    My great grandmother was suppose to have worked in the salf mine in syracuse after imigrating from Irland. She would hve been single. Her name was Ann Mackin. Iknow it is before 1878 because she was maarried at the date and was in Wisconsin. The sprlling could also be incorrect. Sorry I can’t be more helpful. Thanks, Carolyn

  5. Keith W Attle Jr says:

    As a child I lived in Liverpool back in the forties. There were three small ponds on route 57,just past Buckley Rd. These were salt water ponds. There was a bath house and pinic areas for the two ponds on the west side of 57 between the road and Lake Onondaga so the public could bath in them. Later they were filled in becauce the contents contained a high level of urine and officials were concerned about health problems. I swam in the ponds a few times; visited the Salt Museumn many times. It is a wonderful place.

  6. Mike Lamb says:

    This is a followup on the posting of Keith Attle Jr.
    I also remember swimming in the “Salt Ponds” back in the 40’s. There was also a stone bath house on the south side of the larger pond for changing. I remember floating in the pond, and my brother and I would try our best to “sink”, but could not.
    Great memories.
    It would be nice to see some photos.