SIMCOE AND SALT
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 commerce and trade, and he would have heartily endorsed their search for new markets. Simcoe could, in fact, 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 'salutary consquences,' that is. providing employment and making money, included among others things manufacturing hats, mining iron, curing meat, building ships and producing salt.
Most of Simcoe's profit-making proposals never really got off the ground, however, a few 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 vitually 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.
The sea is the ultimate source of all salt for the origin of salt deposits can be traced back to the drying up of various seas. On the general average every 100 pounds of sea water carries in solution 35 pounds of solid matter of which 27 pounds is sodium chloride. The remaining solids are various chemicals: chloride; sulphates, bromides and carbonates.
Salt is one of the most sought-after commodities in human history. The poet 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 which is 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."
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 necessary for life itself. Living bodies eliminate it and without replenishment by ingestion, humans and other animals soon die, which is why animal trails lead to salt licks and the first human paths did too. For the province's pioneers salt was vital. 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, when 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 Aborigines 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 discovered 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. The salt works in Ontario play a major role in satisfying the American's insatiable demand for the substance.
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, thus limiting 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 by Simcoe so they could instruct local pioneers 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 and Simcoe was anxious to encourage these skilled workmen to come to Canada before they were enticed to the United States.Until the skilled workers arrived, Simcoe in the absence of experts 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. He sent the following warning with these workers. "Take particular care that they behave themselves well and do not get any rum to injure their constitutions."
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