Barton begins consolidating of Bay Area’s salt industry

Third in a series:
John Barton brought a new dimension to the salt industry on the edges of San Francisco Bay in 1868. It was money — lots of it.

Before Barton and his Union Pacific Salt Company, salt manufacturing on the Bay had been mom-and-pop operations. Families would acquire several hundred acres of salt marsh land, enclose ponds, erect windmills and harvest salt as had been done for thousands of years. While there were 17 salt producers located on the Bay in 1868, total production was 17,000 tons a year.

San Francisco Bay salt wasn’t even regarded as a very good product in the 1860s. While meat and fish products were preserved locally, packers preferred to use salt that came from Liverpool. It could be had rather inexpensively because it was shipped at ballast rates. English ships off-loaded Liverpool salt and then on-loaded California wheat.

Barton, a native of Massachusetts, had been trained as a clerk keeping books for a variety of companies from New York to Ohio. When he was 37, in 1850, he sailed off to California, joining the great horde of adventures seeking to make a fortune in the gold fields. He spent two months wielding the pick and rockers in icy cold streams before going back to the mercantile business, the trade he knew best.

Gaining experience
In 1858, Barton began importing salt from Carmen Island in the Gulf of California. It was also the year he finally found time to get married to a young woman he had met in New York. By the time he incorporated the Union Pacific Salt Company, he had 10 years of experience in the salt industry.

After incorporation, with Barton appointed as president, the company bought the 1,200-acre Rock Island, located near the mouths of Alameda Creek and Mount Eden Slough, and invested $100,000. This marshy piece of land was divided into five concentrating ponds of 100 to 300 acres each. Bay water was admitted at high tide through 15 gates, each one 12 feet wide and hand-operated.

It took from two days to six to fill the receiving reservoir where the mud was settled out. The Bay water was then transferred to crystallizing ponds, which were from six to eight acres in size.

Special care was taken to prepare table salt. The cleanest solution (pickle) was pumped by windmills into elevated pans of wood to be evaporated.

The Union Pacific Salt Company was the biggest on the Bay It employed more than 80 men. By 1885, the Union Pacific Salt Company was producing 20,000 tons of salt a year. Its closest competitors were producing 5,000 tons a year. All together, the Bay Area was harvesting 47,400 tons of salt a year. It proved to be too much.

A glut on the market
By 1885, the saltmakers on the Bay were suffering from overproduction. More salt was being produced than could be sold. In order to stabilize the price of salt, the Alameda County salt producers met, and it was agreed that Union Pacific Salt would lease the other plants on the Bay and in this way control production and the price.

A few salt producers didn’t go along with this arrangement, but these produced so little salt that Union Pacific was able to control production through the late 1890s.

At the turn of the century, New York interests formed a company called Federal Salt. The objective was to gain control of the entire San Francisco Bay Area salt crop. It took Federal Salt two years to achieve its goal, but the monopoly didn’t hold. It only lasted for a year.

However the seed was planted, and within a little more than 30 years there would only be one salt company on the Bay, Leslie Salt.

With Federal Salt Co.’s failure to maintain a monopoly, three new salt companies came into production on the Bay: the California Salt Co., Continental Salt and Chemical Co. and Leslie Salt Refining Co. (one of the few producers located on the west side of San Francisco Bay).

The Leslie Salt Refining Co. was established in 1901 with its principal plant a mile south of San Mateo. By 1919, the company was producing 25,000 tons of salt a year.

Salt monopoly
The three companies began merging and buying the smaller production companies, which surrounded them. Then, in 1924, the three companies merged. The California Salt Co., the Continental Salt and Chemical Co. and the Leslie Salt Refining Co. were reincorporated to become the Leslie-California Salt Co. This buying and merging continued through 1936, when the Leslie Salt Co. was incorporated, taking over the assets of the Leslie-California Salt Company and the Arden Salt Company, which included the old buildings of the Union Pacific Salt Co.

By 1961, Leslie Salt would have the world’s largest solar evaporation plant. Its ponds would cover 40,000 acres and it would produce 1 million tons of salt a year.

In 1979, Leslie Salt Co. was bought by Cargill Corporation, an agricultural conglomerate headquartered in Minneapolis, Minn. The brand name, Leslie Salt, was retained for the product sold on grocers’ shelves, but in 1991, the sign on the company door was changed from Leslie to Cargill.

The Cargill Co. now produces a million tons of salt from 29,000 acres of salt ponds on San Francisco Bay. Jill Singleton, of Cargill’s public relations office, says the company has become more efficient in its salt production. Some 12,000 acres of former Leslie Salt Co. ponds were sold in 1979 to create the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.