Mt. Eden Salt Industry: Oliver Salt Company

Salt

Salt, as a substance, is crucial to living beings and enables life to endure critical changes and evolve through time. This common compound gives all creatures the proper nutrients to survive and allows for further sustenance. This essential substance to all forms of life has become a global industry, an indelible commodity that brings workers and their families together to, not only produce a vital product, but also to form communities within the industry. These communities subsist and grow according to salt production, relying on the salt industry for survival just as all forms of life rely on the product. This article explores the solar harvesting that took place on the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay during the nineteenth century.

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Mt. Eden's Beginnings

Salt production within the San Francisco Bay Area played a dominant role within the salt industry of California. By the 1890s the township of Mt. Eden alone had 17 small family-owned salt companies that produced hundreds of tons of salt every year. This salt would be packaged and distributed in the San Francisco Bay Area and throughout the country. Andrew Oliver came to the East Bay and formed one of those small salt companies after his first harvest in 1872. His business, the Acme Salt Company, later renamed the Oliver Salt Company, continued under family management until its closing in 1982.

During the height of the California Gold Rush, between 1849 to 1853, hundreds of thousands of people came to California in their search for their own personal riches. As many men began to luck out with gold, they often ventured into other means of finical sustainability, including the production of salt. John Johnson came over to the East Bay and became one of the first permanent residents of Mt. Eden township in 1849. Following in 1853, Johnson harvested 25 tons of salt that were sold in San Francisco at $35 a ton. Fifteen years after Johnson's first harvest, Andrew August (Ohleson) Oliver purchased 120 acres of potential salt ponds. Oliver then added to his property in 1871 and had his first harvest of 10 tons of commercial salt in 1872, the same year his Acme Salt Company began.

In 1877, the South Coast Pacific Railroad was built adjacent to the Oliver property making it even easier for the products to reach further markets and be sold at greater lengths. Salt from the Acme Company was being sent inland via railroad, and then transferred to sell along California's rivers. The following year after the opening of the railroad Oliver's company reached 1,200 tons per year, making it the largest within the East Bay’s salt industry.

Labor within the township was extremely brutal, with employees in the marshes and salt ponds from sun up to sun down. In the starting years of the company, workers would use wheelbarrows to transport salt brine to warehouses for further processing, but eventually the company installed small tracks for pushcarts to make transport more efficient and less labor intensive. To start there were three to four full time employees and many times during harvesting seasons Chinese and Japanese laborers were hired. The Chinese and Japanese laborers lived in separate shacks from the full time employees and made only about $1 a day. Working in the marshes required healthy, able people who needed to be prepared for strenuous work.

In early 1890 Andrew Oliver passed, leaving his second eldest son, Adolph (who was 15 at the time), along with his widow, Elsa, to over the family business. As the turn of the century approached the family decided to change the name from Acme to the Oliver Salt Company as a way to attach their family name to the township of Mt. Eden. Elsa and young Adolph turned out to be better managers then expected and quickly added acreage, landings, and warehouses to better refine the salt and make it a purer source. The Oliver's sold their company, including the land and all of the equipment, to the Leslie Salt Company in 1927. Just seven short years later, Adolph's sons, Gus and Alden, bought up some of the land previously owned by John Johnson to start up the Oliver Brothers Salt Company. The land that the brothers bought was located north and south of what is now the San Mateo Bridge (in fact when driving west towards San Mateo from Hayward, the abandoned refining warehouse can still be seen as the last building on the left before crossing the bridge). The Oliver Brothers Salt Company supplied salt to tanneries, food processers and packing companies. However as the twentieth century wore on the Oliver Brother's ponds were slowly sold of piece by piece. The last Oliver owned evaporation pond closed 1982.

Salt Evaporation Process and Problems

The invention of the Archimedes Screw Pump greatly accelerated the salt evaporation process and was extremely beneficial for the Oliver Salt Company. Andrew Oliver became interested in speeding up the process in the 1870s and began looking at the drawings of Archimedes (287-212 B.C.), the Greek mathematician and engineer, for inspiration. Oliver used this design to build a screw pump with wooden blades that rotated in the wind and transported brine water to neighboring crystallization pond. This pump could move 2,000 gallons of water from one pond to another every minute. The whole process of shifting brine water from pond to pond was long and difficult, largely depending on the weather. For every inch of rain water that fell on the East Bay a quarter inch of harvestable salt would dissolve, seeing as solar evaporation took up to five years per harvest, too much rain could be detrimental to the livelihood of the Oliver family.

Bibliography

  • Eskew, Garnett Laidlaw. Salt: The Fifth Element, The Story of a Basic American Industry. Chicago: J. G. Ferguson and Associates, 1948.
  • Kurlansky, Mark. Salt: A World History. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.
  • Laszlo, Pierre. Salt: Grain of Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
  • Sandoval, John S. Mt. Eden: Cradle of the Salt Industry in California. Hayward: Mt. Eden Historical Publishers, 1988.
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