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From Leslie Salt to Cargill
July 14, 2008, 12:00 AM

Salt, one of the most basic chemicals needed for the human body, is not always easy to obtain. Animals and man migrate miles to find salt and cities like Timbuktu have become famous for their supplies.

Salt has been used for payment of debts and also paid out to workers (hence the word "salary”). Places where salt was available across the United States, salt licks, were noted on maps of the early pioneers because of the precious nature of the substance.

The California salt industry started in the 1850s when some salt was placed on the market, but we know the Indians, Spanish and Mexicans gathered salt for their use out of natural tide pools that abounded in Alameda County before this.

It had to have tasted bitter and terrible as it could not have been over 99.63% pure sodium chloride. We now demand 99.9% pure salt for our use in our homes, and this technological refinement method did not come until the latter part of the 1800s. In fact most of the pure salt for table use was imported from Liverpool, England, until the middle 1880s.

The salt collected by the first salt entrepreneur in the East Bay, John Johnson, sold for $50 a ton and it was used mainly for the chemical separation of silver from its impurities in the Comstock Lode in Nevada. 

Seeing the potential in salt collecting in the East Bay marshes, many others jumped in and developed salt collectors and the price dropped to $3 a ton. Dozens of small operators, with less than 20 acres, developed the marshes along the East Bay to Newark where favorable winds and weather conditions produced thousands of tons of salt per year.

In 1903, C. E. Whitney, a dredger by trade, bought 200 acres of land south of Alvinza Hayward’s property, east of the railroad tracks in San Mateo and developed a salt-evaporating business. The railroad that ran through San Mateo was ideal for transporting the bulky material to the market and there was a cheap, abundant labor supply in the area that would work for the $5.40 he paid for the six-day workweek.

The work was demanding. A large workforce was needed because everything was lifted with shovels and moved in wheelbarrows. It was backbreaking work and mainly Japanese were used for this business in San Mateo.

The company started by C. E. Whitney was named the Leslie Salt Refining Co., but changed to Leslie-California Salt Company in 1924 after many consolidations occurred with other companies. The history of the salt industry in the Bay Area is one of absorption of the inefficient and undercapitalized small companies that were usually started by one man and were run as a family operation. Dozens of these companies would be taken over until only a few, like Leslie Salt, survived in the 1940s.

In 1910, Leslie Salt improved the quality of its salt to 99.9% by use of the evaporative method of refinement and their marketing strategy overwhelmed their competitors. By 1919 they were harvesting 25,000 tons yearly.

Redwood City began developing their waterway of the Redwood Creek into a deep water port in the 1920s. Leslie Salt acquired more than 40,000 acres of tideland north and south of Redwood City and much of this area was used for the evaporation of salt. In the 1930s August Schilling took over the Leslie Salt Company, retained its name and closed the San Mateo operation after consolidating its offices and operations in Redwood City. Now the company was processing 300,000 tons of salt a year and employed 300 workers. Ten years later Leslie was producing 450,000 tons of salt on 25,000 acres.

Arden Salt, which owned marshland to the west of Alviso, was merged with Leslie in 1936. Additional marshland was acquired around Redwood City in 1940, and a new plant with ship-loading facilities was developed. In 1948 Leslie sold its interests in salt-producing to Cargill Salt.

Due to environmental concerns, silting of the Bay and population pressures, Cargill ceased production of unprocessed industrial salts in the Redwood City facility in 2006 and removed its huge salt pile.

Rediscovering the Peninsula appears in the Monday edition of The Daily Journal.

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