Every Pittsburgher knows steel mills and coal mines make up the city’s rich industrial past, but this area was once a hub for another industry: salt.
Without it, early Pittsburgh settlers would have had a hard time keeping their meat edible before refrigerators became commonplace. Salt was a necessity, and it was expensive.
Bushels of salt arrived by boat from Liverpool, England, and horses hauled them across the Appalachians. That leg of the trip took 20 days and led to a steep markup in price.
This all changed in the early 1800s. The topic sparked the curiosity of Good Question listener Charlie Jones, a geology lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh.
He recalled reading that the first industrial use of coal in Pittsburgh was to boil saltwater from springs to get salt.
"Where were these springs?" he asked. "Are any still flowing?"
I’ll get to that … but first, some background on how this area became one of the nation’s biggest salt manufacturers.
Striking Salt In Saltsburg
The region’s salt history begins 40 miles east of Pittsburgh along the Conemaugh River in Indiana County.
Walking along the West Penn Trail, I stumbled across a sign north of White Township at the site of the Watson Mine, which opened in 1813 "to supply fuel for boiling brine at the first salt works in the valley.”
You’d never know today. All I could see from the trail were trees, weeds and grass.
To learn more, I met up with local history buff Jack Maguire at the nearby Saltsburg Historical Society. He was born and raised here in the borough whose name boasts the industry that put it on the map.
Maguire said animals helped lead humans to salt. Deer, for example, often congregated around a natural salt lick.
“It’s just a little crack in the surface of the rock strata,” he said, adding that salty water – the brine – seeped out.
In the early 1800s, a resident known as Mrs. Deemer realized one of these salty springs was on her land. She boiled down the water and showed the remaining salt crystals to a neighbor, William Johnston. Her discovery prompted him to try producing salt on a big scale. To do that, he needed to drill into the source of the brine several hundred feet deep.
Johnston used a spring pole drill – developed by other early saltmakers elsewhere in the country. Maguire showed me a replica he helped build near the river.
Three wooden poles along with a fourth placed horizontally helped support a 50-pound iron chisel. The chisel pounded the ground over and over again with momentum generated by the drillers’ own body weight.
“At the beginning, it was probably a 2-man, 3-man operation,” Maguire said.
Each well took up to 10 months to complete. Once the driller hit the watery brine in the rock below, he switched into production mode and started extracting the liquid. That’s where the coal came in. Crews burned it to boil the salty water in big cauldron-like kettles.
“Salt crystals would form and they’d be scooped out and be put in another area to be dried,” Maguire said.
By 1830, the Conemaugh Valley had grown to the third largest salt producer in the country. Salt works popped up all over western Pennsylvania, including in Pittsburgh.
This history is chronicled in the book "Salt in the Conemaugh Valley" by William C. Dzombak, who passed away in 2015.
“It’s exhaustive,” said his son, Dave Dzombak, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “It’s the way dad was, a very thorough person. A lot of detail. It’s probably more of a reference book than a take-it-to-the-beach book.”
Dave Dzombak said he spent much of his childhood hiking with his father discovering old industrial sites around western Pennsylvania. His dad had a longtime fascination with the region’s industrial history, which prompted him to write two books in his retirement from the chemistry department at St. Vincent College in Latrobe – one on salt, and another on the Pennsylvania Canal.
Searching For Salt
In “Salt in the Conemaugh Valley,” William Dzombak writes about a number of wells in Pittsburgh. One driller struck brine along the Monongahela River and the water reportedly gushed out of the ground, shooting 30 feet in the air.
I kept coming across references to wells where the Nine Mile Run flows into the Monongahela, so I went exploring along the confluence in the East End. I found rocks, wooden boards and an old dock, but no sign of past industry. I stopped short of taking a sip of the water to see if it tasted salty.
I also visited nearby Saline Street – a fitting name, as it reportedly once led to several salt works. But today, it dead-ends into a mass of bushes alonside a strip mall.
Although I have yet to find a salt spring, Dzombak lists over 300 saltmakers who set up shop before an oversupply sent profits plummeting. I imagine many of these sites are overgrown or covered by roads and buildings, but some of the springs may still be flowing, known only to the deer that roam nearby licking up the salt.
If you want to try your hand at locating these old sites, take a look at “Salt in the Conemaugh Valley” in the reference section of the main branch of the Carnegie Library in Oakland. (Note that you cannot check out the book; you can only view it in the library.) Some pages contain maps that show where the salt works were located. Alternatively, locate the list of saltmakers on page 47 of part 3. Some entries will give you a good feel for where various salt works once stood. Other entries are vague, but you can try to cross-reference the entries with old maps, like this interactive feature that lets you zoom in on Pittsburgh neighborhoods as they appeared over the past two centuries.