CHAPTER: SALT MANUFACTURING, by Jefferson B. Browne, 1912
The original proprietors and the first settlers of Key West considered the manufacture of salt as the most probable means of making the place known to the commercial world. Small quantities had been gathered from the natural salt ponds in the interior, without any special facilities, and that portion of the island was regarded as destined to be the source of future wealth to any enterprising individuals who might undertake to turn its advantages to account. The resident proprietors, however, were not themselves possessed of sufficient capital beyond the requirements of their commercial undertakings to engage in the business, and the first regular attempt at salt manufacturing was not made until 1830. Mr. Richard Fitzpatrick, of South Carolina, then a resident on the island, leased that year the Whitehead interest in the southeastern end of the island, and constructed the “Salt Ponds.”
About one hundred acres of this property were subject to overflow at any ordinary high tide, a large portion being always under water. This was divided into compartments or “pans” one hundred feet long and fifty feet wide, separated by walls two feet high made of coral rock. Small wooden floodgates connected all the pans, and sea water was turned into them from a large canal, in which was a floodgate for regulating the water supply; thus the water could be let into or cut off from all or any of the pans. The pans were then filled with salt water and the floodgate in the canal closed, and as the water was lowered by solar evaporation more salt water was let in. This process was repeated until the approach of the rainy season, when the water was allowed to evaporate, and the salt precipitated into crystals, from an eighth to a quarter of an inch in size.
About the time that Mr. Fitzpatrick began his operations in 1830, a bill was introduced in the territorial council to establish the North American Salt Company here, and the local newspaper estimated that this new company would require five hundred vessels to transport the salt that would be made annually. Air. Fitzpatrick was a member of the council and opposed the bill and prevented its passage. This gave rise to, an attack on him, which became very bitter before the election
An intelligent negro man named Hart was brought from the Bahamas and placed in charge of the works. Several dry seasons promised favorable results, but they were not realized.
In the summer of 1832 the prospect was thought good for sixty thousand bushels, but rains set in early, and the crop was lost. Mr. Fitzpatrick abandoned his works in 1834. The reduction of the duty on salt after he commenced operations had some effect probably in producing this result. At one time he bad over thirty hands employed.
The next attempt was made under the auspices of the La Fayette Salt Company, organized through the exertions of Mr. Simonton, the principal stockholders being residents of Mobile and New Orleans. Operations were commenced early in 1835, but success was not achieved, and the work passed in a few years into the hands of another company, Messrs. Adam Gordon, F. A. Browne and William H. Wall being among the stockholders. Subsequently, about 1843, Charles Howe obtained the controlling interest, and after the hurricane of 1846 became the sole proprietor. In 1850 the crop amounted to thirty-five thousand bushels, and Mr. Howe was encouraged to enlarge his works by the purchase of the Whitehead portion of the pond, which bad been abandoned by Mr. Fitzpatrick. In 1851 he sold half of his interest to Mr. W. C. Dennis, to whom the management of the works was entrusted. The amount of salt produced annually varied materially, ranging from fifteen or twenty thousand bushels to seventy-five thousand, the largest crop raked in any one year. Mr. Dennis continued the manufacture until his death, which occurred in 1864.
During the Civil War the manufacture of salt on the island was suspended, in consequence of one of the principal sources of demand for salt, the Charlotte Harbor fisheries, having been cut off, the military authorities being apprehensive that the salt furnished to them would find its way into the Confederacy.
In 1865 Lieutenant W. R. Livermore of the United States army engineer corps, purchased the works and commenced the manufacture of salt. He spent a small fortune in the prosecution of the business, but abandoned it in 1868, after becoming convinced that it could not be profitably produced with inefficient and irresponsible free negro labor.
In 1847 forty thousand bushels were produced, and until 1855 the quantity varied from thirty-five to forty-eight thousand bushels. The banner year was 1855 with seventy-five thousand bushels, and the output until 1861 ranged from sixty to seventy thousand bushels. In 1861 it fell to thirty thousand bushels. Between 1862 and 1865, and 1868 and 1871, no attempt was made to operate the salt ponds. From 1871 to 1875 the output ran from fifteen to twenty-five thousand bushels. In 1876 the hurricane of October 19th washed away about fifteen thousand bushels which was ungathered in the pans, and did considerable injury to the works, which ended all attempts at salt making by solar evaporation in Key West.
In 1871 part of the salt works passed into the hands of Messrs. C. and E. Howe, and was subsequently purchased by Mr. W. D. Cash. In 1906 the entire interest of Mr. Livermore and Mr. Cash was purchased by the Key West Realty Company, who laid it off into town lots.
Remains of the Salt Ponds or “Pans,” are still to be seen, but in a dilapidated condition.