SALT FOR SALE
History is economics in action.
When the Prime Minister and the Premiers depart as 'Team Canada' on their next trade mission, they may very well be accompanied by the ghost of John Graves Simcoe. Upper Canada's first lieutenant-governor was just as preoccupied as the premiers with trade and commerce, and he would have heartily endorsed their search for new markets. In fact, he could very well be called the province's first pitchman. "A thousand details crowd upon my mind," said Simcoe, "that would be productive of the most salutary consequences."
His many schemes for making money included among others things, manufacturing hats, mining iron, curing meat, building ships and producing salt. Most of his plans were fanciful failures, but others like the production of salt were eminently sound and sensible. Chloride is the chemical name of salt. "When sodium, an unstable metal that can suddenly burst into flame, reacts with a deadly poisonous gas known as chlorine, it becomes the staple food sodium chloride, which is the only family of rocks eaten by humans."
From pre-history until just a century ago when the mysteries of salt were revealed by modern chemistry and geology, no one knew that salt was virtually everywhere. Salt fills the oceans, bubbles up in springs, forms crusts in lake beds and thickly veins a large part of the Earth's rock fairly close to the surface. Salt is one of the most sought-after commodities in human history. Homer called it a divine substance, and Plato described it as especially dear to the gods.
Salt's importance to society is reflected in the significance the word 'salt' has in our language. A solid, trustworthy person is "the salt of the earth." A sensible individual knows how to take exaggerated claims "with a grain of salt." One's placement at the table above the salt shaker once indicated high rank. Salty speech has power and impact and a salty character has vigor and vitality. Conscientious workers are said to be "worth their salt." Roman soldiers were paid in salt, the origin of the word "salary." Although salt has historically been a source of wealth, its production often required hard, physical labour resulting in the phrase we still use today: "back to the salt mines." The discovery of how to get salt out of brine increased the number of places where people could prosper.
Salt is the stuff of kitchens and cooking. While it is a source of concern for those advised by their doctors to use less salt, it is, in fact, necessary for life itself. Living bodies eliminate it and without replenishment by ingestion, humans and other animals soon die, This is why animal trails lead to salt licks and the first human paths did too. At no time was it indispensability truer than in bygone days for salt was vitally important for the province's pioneers. It was needed for livestock. It was used to season food, and because it inhibits the growth of bacteria it was used as a preservative.
Every new family entering Upper Canada was given the precious gift of a barrel of salt compliments of Governor Simcoe. Salt was usually in short supply and early in the life of the colony it had to be imported at considerable cost. Prices for salt in 1788 ranged from 2 shillings 6 pence to 40 shillings for the same amount. Salt was even smuggled into Niagara from the United States and sold at five pounds a bushel, York currency. In spite of the colony's best efforts to stop this illegal trade a great deal of illicit salt entered Upper Canada and this hampered local production.
Simcoe, who was always conscious of the need to control prices and generate public revenues, said there was no part of the globe where a salt spring would be more beneficial than Upper Canada. He realized this even before he left England to take up his post in Upper Canada. He directed his officials to make a "methodical analysis" of the salt springs including one located near Niagara, "without impeding in any way the Indians' use of the salt springs." Simcoe knew the Native peoples prized salt for its intrinsic value and venerated salt licks as sacred places that attracted deer, elk, bear and buffalo.
The analyses of salt springs located between Niagara and the head of Lake Ontario indicated a good quality of salt. One expert declared, "Nature has nowhere combined more advantageous means of making salt than in Upper Canada." The yields of salt springs in the province varied widely, the ratio of salt to water ranging from one to three to one to fifteen. Large quantities of salt were extracted from mineral springs at Twelve Mile Creek (St. Catharines), where William Merritt was a successful producer. He had six kettles in operation producing a very good residue. The Merritt works yielded 50 barrels of salt a week valued at $5200 a year, money that remained in the province.
One salt well founded at Saltfleet in 1792 had been worked since earliest times. The town's name is derived from the Saxon word fleo, meaning "flow of salt." Salt became a cash crop of critical importance. It attracted an influx of farmers to trade bringing wheat to the mill and returning with barrels of salt. Salt that had formerly been purchased from the Onondaga works in New York state was gradually replaced by local salt, and by the latter half of the 19th century salt had become a major export from the province. Today salt is a major industry in Canada, the world's sixth largest salt producer with salt works in Ontario playing a major role in satisfying the U.S. insatiable demand.
It took twenty-five cords of wood to produce four barrels of salt per week. Boiling brine was a slow process because proper equipment was not readily available. In most cases only old pots and kettles were available and this limited its production. Boilers and kettles of 200 gallon capacity were needed to improve the output of the springs, but this kind of equipment, which was made to order in England, was difficult to acquire.
Skilled workers from England were also in short supply and eagerly sought. Simcoe was anxious to bring them to Upper Canada as quickly as possible so they could instruct others in how to make the most of the salt licks. American salt producers were likewise soliciting proficient personnel, particularly knowledgeable salt technicians who lived and worked near Liverpool. Simcoe was anxious to encourage these skilled workmen to come to Canada before they were enticed to the United States. In the meantime in the absence of experts Simcoe was forced to make the most of what he had. On one occasion he delegated two members of the Queen's Rangers to work on salt springs at Grantham. With these workers Simoce sent a warning.In His Own Words
"Take particular care that they behave themselves well and do not get any rum to injure their constitutions."
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