Salt Industry

By: Diana J. Kleiner

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: February 3, 2021

Salt is the oldest and most continuously produced commercial mineral in Texas. Long before the arrival of White men, Indians obtained salt from numerous salt lakes, salines, and salt springs and from the alkali lakes of the High Plains. As early as 1750 the Spaniards produced salt from the Salt Flat lakes in the area of Hudspeth and Culberson counties, and from about 1768 Spanish colonists in Mexico and Texas obtained salt from La Sal del Rey in present Hidalgo County and from La Sal Vieja fifteen miles east in present Willacy County; salt from these two lakes was hauled over the old "salt road" to Reynosa. Early settlers obtained salt from Juan Cordona Lake, now in Crane County; Laguna Salada, now in Brooks County; Butler Saline, now in Freestone County; from wells on Salt Creek, in present Young County; from seepages in the area of present Llano County; and from many salines in East Texas. In 1834 the Cherokee Indians made the first salt at the site of Grand Saline in present Van Zandt County, by evaporating water from salt marshes. In 1839 Gen. Nathaniel Smith from Tennessee obtained a saline near Palestine, where he made salt until his death in 1841. His estate filed a claim against the Republic of Texas in 1841 for salt used in the Trinity campaign to the value of $100, and for more than ten years his sons produced salt commercially thereafter. In 1845 John Jordan and A. T. McGee began boiling down brine in large iron kettles brought from Nacogdoches at Jordan's saline in the area of Kaufman County, and in 1849 Samuel Alexander began producing salt from a saline in Fisher County. In 1850 Frederick J. Hamm leased the salt works at Grand Saline from Jordan and McGee, and in 1857 bought the plant. The output of salt during this period was small because of the crude method of manufacture and poor transportation facilities, all salt being hauled by ox-cart or wagon to towns farther east. In 1859 Samuel Q. Richardson from Kentucky bought the Hamm salt works, dug shallow wells, and installed a pump that was operated by oxen and a treadmill; gum logs, hollowed out and joined together, formed a pipe line from the wells to the boiling kettles. During the Civil War the Confederate government operated the Richardson salt works and produced 500 pounds of salt daily. At the same time James L. McMeans, Sr., operated the Palestine salt works and sold salt to the Confederacy at the fixed price of eight dollars a sack, but customers from East Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas sometimes paid as much as $20 per hundred pounds for salt at Palestine during the war. In 1862 La Sal del Rey was taken over by the state, and in 1863 was captured by the Union Army on a special campaign. After the Civil War Richardson increased the output of the Grand Saline Salt Works to 2,500 pounds daily. In 1875 G. M. Overlease of St. Louis leased the Grand Saline plant and replaced the iron kettles with large square shallow pans, using the heat of the sun for evaporation. In a few years the first well was drilled into the large salt dome underneath the Grand Saline area, and water of high brine content was obtained.

In 1877 the Salt Flat lakes of the Trans-Pecos area became the scene of the Salt War of San Elizario, which arose because individuals who filed on the land including the lakes denied local residents access to the salt. United States soldiers were sent to quell the disturbance, Fort Bliss was reestablished, and diplomatic exchanges were made between the United States and Mexico. In 1891 Maj. Byron Parsons organized the Lone Star Salt Company and installed steam pipes in the evaporating pans, which greatly increased the output. Richardson installed similar equipment, and the production of salt in Grand Saline increased to 17,000 pounds daily. In 1893 Texas produced 18,000 tons of salt, but by 1899 production had risen to 44,634 tons. Between 1901 and 1904 three new salt companies began operations at Grand Saline, and in 1914 the introduction of a new vacuum pan method increased salt output. By 1917 Texas produced 85,181 tons of salt. The Morton Salt Company absorbed most of the small companies in Grand Saline by 1920 and in 1929 expanded activities by opening a mine to produce rock salt. In 1931 the mine began operations at 700 feet below the surface, using a process similar to that in coal mining. Rock salt was crushed, screened, and separated into nine different grades. Salt shipped daily in amounts of 500 tons from this plant was analyzed at over 99 percent sodium chloride. From a production of 208,979 tons in 1934, Texas salt production increased to 1,127,854 tons in 1943 and to 1,191,621 tons in 1947, the greatest production in the state's history.

The best known of the immense deposits of salt in the state are the salt stocks or salt domes of the Gulf Coast region and East Texas, intrusions from unknown depths that almost reach the surface in some places. Sulphur deposits are found on top of these salt domes, and some of the East Texas oil deposits are centered around them. There are also large deposits underlying the West and Northwest Texas plains. Besides Grand Saline, salt is produced commercially in Harris, Anderson, and Duval counties, and stock and impure salt is produced in Hudspeth, Hidalgo, and Willacy counties. Production for local commercial markets has occurred in Smith, Stonewall, and Pecos counties. In 1954 common salt production in Texas reached a high of 2,876,943 short tons, valued at $7,629,531. Some of the state's salt brine production was transported by pipeline to chemical plants at Freeport, Corpus Christi, and Houston. In the 1960s most salt production in Texas came from salt domes on the Coastal Plains, but production was reported in Brazoria, Chambers, Duval, Fort Bend, Harris, Hutchinson, Jefferson, Van Zandt, Ward, and Yoakum counties. The Grand Saline mine in Van Zandt County maintained a large output, and by 1961 salt production increased to 4,695,000 short tons, valued at $17,682,000. This trend continued, so that by 1970 the state produced 10,269,000 short tons, valued at $47,620,000, and was considered the nation's second leading salt producer, supplying 22 percent of total domestic output. In 1975, after two successive record years of salt production reaching a high of 11,379,000 short tons, valued at $51,296,000, Texas's output declined by 25 percent due to a depressed chemical industry, then the principal consumer of salt. Total value of salt production for the year dropped 18 percent, despite an average unit value increase of 9 percent. Salt was produced as salt brine, rock salt, or evaporated salt by nine companies operating at eleven localities in ten counties. Nine companies produced salt brine, which accounted for 95 percent of the salt output and 68 percent of total salt value. Brine was produced from wells drilled into salt domes along the Texas Coastal Plain in Brazoria, Chambers, Duval, Fort Bend, Harris, Jefferson, and Matagorda counties and subsurface salt beds of Permian age in West Texas in Hutchinson and Yoakum counties. Rock salt was mined underground in salt domes by two companies. The Grand Saline salt dome was mined by Morton Salt, and the Hockley dome in Harris County by United Salt Corporation. Both Morton and United produced evaporated salt through the vacuum pan process at localities in Fort Bend and Van Zandt counties. Salt produced in Texas was used in the preparation of chlorine, caustic soda, and other chemicals, for table and household use, in food preservation and preparation, and in water softeners. Between 1975 and 1980 salt production increased. In 1980, however, production of only 9,978,000 short tons was valued at a high of $93,414,000 and represented 24.7 percent of the nation's output. Because of limited salt supplies early in the year, prices were stable. By 1985 Texas salt output was reported by seven companies from nine counties but had fallen in value by roughly one quarter from the previous year. At the time Dow Chemical's operation in Brazoria County was the state's largest salt producer. By the late 1980s salt production had fallen off. In 1990 total production of 8,212,000 short tons, valued at $75,149,000, represented an increase over 1989. The state ranked second, behind Louisiana, and produced 20 percent of the nation's total output. In value, salt ranked sixth among commodities produced in Texas and accounted for 5 percent of the state's mineral value. At the time rock salt was produced by two companies operating mines in Harris and Van Zandt counties. Salt extracted from brine by evaporation was produced by Dow Chemical Company in Brazoria County; Morton Thiokol in Van Zandt County; and Texas Brine Corporation, a subsidiary of United Salt, which maintained operations in Fort Bend, Jefferson, Harris, and Matagorda counties. Sales were made primarily to chemical and ice removal industries.

E. H. Sellards and C. L. Baker, Economic Geology of Texas (University of Texas Bulletin 3401, Austin: Bureau of Economic Geology, 1934). University of Texas, Texas Looks Ahead: The Resources of Texas (Austin, 1944; rpt., Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1968). U.S. Bureau of Mines, Minerals Yearbook. C. F. Ward, The Salt War of San Elizario (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1932).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Diana J. Kleiner, “Salt Industry,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 25, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

February 3, 2021