Neches Saline, also known as Brooks Saline and Gardiner's Saline, was a small antebellum community north of the point of intersection of State Highway 155 and Farm Road 344 in extreme southwestern Smith County. The first visitor to the area was José Francisco Calahorra y Saenz, a Spanish missionary who traveled through in 1765 and mentioned the saline in his account of the journey. Early in the 1820s the Cherokee Indians, led by Chief Bowl in flight from hostile tribes in North Texas, became the first settlers. Both the Spanish and the Indians drew salt water from shallow wells on the plains and then allowed it to evaporate, leaving the salt. The first White pioneer in the vicinity was George W. Bays, who arrived in 1823. He left after the Fredonian Rebellion of December 1826. On February 27, 1827, the site was officially issued to William Bean, but the title was later canceled. Peter Ellis Bean got the grant on September 24, 1828.
By 1830 there were two trading posts on the salt plain, one belonging to Chates H. Simms and the other to James Hall. In March 1833 Bean signed a contract with Stephen Prather to start a salt business, but Prather died in June. Martin Lacy established a trading post and began operating the saltworks in 1836. At that time more than forty people lived in the community. After the fall of the Alamo in March 1836 these inhabitants retreated for a while to nearby Lacy's Fort. The next year the Texas Senate vetoed a treaty proposed by Sam Houston to deed the area to the Cherokees. A new trading post was established, and Chief Bowl and a Dr. DeBard became partners in the manufacture of salt. But relations between Whites and Indians were deteriorating. On October 5, 1838, eighteen Saline residents were killed or carried off, including several members of the Killough family. The Cherokees were blamed for the Killough Massacre, though they denied any participation. Gen. Thomas J. Rusk was ordered to end the conflict, but by March 1839 President Mirabeau B. Lamar had ordered the removal of the Cherokees and their allies; the Cherokee War resulted. Bowl was killed in battle on July 16, and by December the tribes agreed to evacuate.
With the Neches Saline open to permanent settlement, other homesteaders arrived, and by 1847 the community had a post office. In 1848 residents called the settlement Gardiner's Saline, after Thomas Gardiner, the precinct election judge. The next year William D. Briggs employed eight people at the saltworks and grossed $4,500. He became postmaster in December 1850 and served until the post office was closed in 1851. Even during the most successful years of the saltworks, Neches Saline was only a transitory settlement. The area was fairly isolated, and the underground water was salty. The only means of earning a livelihood was the manufacture of salt, but the operations were small and lucrative only for the owner, who was at the mercy of the salt market. Briggs sold half his share in the saline to Frost Thorn in 1857 and the rest to James Oden Brooks and Charles Chamberlain in 1861. Brooks and Chamberlain manufactured salt and sold it to the Confederacy, which was unable to obtain salt from other sources because of the federal blockade of the coast. In 1863 Brooks bought the other half of the saline from the Thorn family; two years later he leased it to W. B. Brooks. But by 1866 an excess of salt on the market had lowered the price drastically. When his lease expired in 1870, W. B. Brooks bought the land from James O. Brooks, then became a doctor and moved to Fort Worth. There is no further record of salt production at the Neches Saline, and the community disappeared. The 1981 county highway map showed the Lake Palestine Church and the Wheeler Rodeo Grounds on the site of the old settlement. Much of the salt plain is now covered by Lake Palestine.
See also SALT INDUSTRY.