Nation's Salt Cellar Tapped By Accident

Sunday, April 20, 1941

Blanchard's Boom Went Awry But Industry He Launched Remained To Thrive Despite Many Mishaps

Editor's note: This story is from a special section in the Hutchinson News-Herald commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of Hutchinson

If a "joker" in a forgotten Indian treaty was responsible for the location of Hutchinson, the discovery of the industry which gave the town its best known nickname - "The Salt City" - was equally fortuitous.

No one suspected a vast bed of salt underlay the rolling prairie on both sides of the Arkansas river. And when, as an afterthought, drilling for the precious chemical actually began, some of the pioneers were so dubious they believed the well had been "salted."

The first discovery in this vicinity was valueless. In 1875, cowboys camping ten miles south of Raymond, in Rice county, found some salt on the marshy ground. The word reached Hutchinson and a company quickly was formed. It was as quickly dissolved when the brine was found too weak to be evaporated profitably.

The misadventure had long been forgotten when in the latter part of 1886 a strange appearing creature in female garb rode the Santa Fe into town and was assisted off the train by a detective from Terre Haute, Indiana, who was seeking one Ben Blanchard.

After the detective had done his good deed and departed, Ben Blanchard stepped out of the petticoats which had so effectively diguised him from the chivalrous officer and emerged as his true self, a real estate promoter who could, and did, sell a Hoosier Methodist banker a block of lots, today worth about $750, for $30,000 in cash.

Blanchard planned to do for South Hutchinson what Clinton Carter Hutchinson had done for the town which bears his name. Blanchard coupled piety and shrewdness to great advantage; he thumbed the Bible with one hand and his bank book with the other. Those who knew him say he never did an honest day's work in his life.

Blanchard was an immediate success in South Hutchinson. He built a big hotel and a big Methodist church. he built a mill which never turned out a sack of flour. His enterprise was behind a barbed-wire factory and he kept wagons busy hauling lumber and rock to South Hutchinson where houses were being erected on every corner.

It was all show, a successful show. He went back east and brought out to Kansas a trainload of investors, eager to sink their good money in the town which the florid, handsome man with the diamond stickpin in a bright red tie described so glowingly.

By 1887, South Hutchinson was a city of 2,500 and choice lots were selling for thousands of dollars. A year later, many of the buildings had been sold and torn down to satisfy creditors; the bubble was burst and Blanchard was gone. Some say he went as he came, dressed as a woman, and slipping away in the night time.

But before he left, Ben Blanchard had discovered salt.

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AS ANOTHER PUFF to his boom, Blanchard thought up a gas well. Or maybe it was a coal mine. At least he hired the competent firm of Palmer and Davis to do the drilling on the South Hutchinson lot.

Some say results didn't appear fast enough and that Blanchard doped the well first with chunks of anthracite, then with several barrels of crude oil - hauled to the site by Ed Bulger - and finally with $8-a-barrel salt from New York state. Each discovery, at any ratte, was duly reported.

That Blanchard actually salted his salt well is doubtful. The night after the drill hit salt, Sept. 27, 1887, hewent to The News office to look up the facts about the chemical and its possible commercial value. No one would put it above Blanchard for him to show the town refined salt and tell them it came from his well, however.

Although few persons took stock in the discovery, the newspapers were convinced it was bona fide.

The News of Oct. 9th, 1887, reported the Blanchard well, about which there was considerable and well encouraged mystery, was down 705 feet and had been through 225 feet of salt.

The News related: "The excitement over the gas well will keep on gathering force each day. Yesterday we learned that in addition to several more large veins of salt that were passed through, there was an eight-inch vein of cannel coal passed through."

Although The News proclaimed the wonders of the gas-coal-oil mine which had yielded salt, the people of Hutchinson still didn't realize the value opf the discovery. All they knew was that salt was bringing from $3.00 to $3.50 a barrel at the Michigan field.

Blanchard himself, wasn't interested for long. His business was to sell town lots at a profit. He never made a nickel directly from salt. What he dug up he threw away.

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IF BEN BLANCHARD did no more than advertise the possibilities of salt in Hutchinson, he did his part. On Oct. 14, 1887, The News announced New York capitalists were on their way here to investigate. The News was right. That very month Dr. W.A. Gouinlock, a salt manufacturer of Warsaw, N.Y., who had made a false start at Ellsworth, arrived in Hutchinson and commenced putting down a salt well north of the Arkansas river in the southeast part of the city limits of Hutchinson. It was drilled by Sanders and Smith of Bradford, Pa.

Dr. Gouinlock's effert must have seemed puny alongside Blanchard's $200,000 Pennsylvania company which was still seeking gas in South Hutchinson. But the Warsaw verteran knew what he was doing. He announced the completion of his well, after boring through 300 feet of rock salt, on Dec. 16, 1887.

By Jan. 17, Dr. Gouinlock was ready to build a plant and let a contract on that date for the buildings. The Tobey and Booth packing house was near the site and the butchers contracted for all the salt they could use.

Dr. Gouinlock was ready to start production at a maximum of 500 barrels a day by March 24, 1888. More than 5,000 persons attended the opening ceremonies.

The salt rush was on. Within that year, ten salt plants were started and the excitement spread to Wall street where financiers suddenly discovered Hutchinson more than a name to be found only on the newer maps.

Blanchard apparently remained unconcerned. On March 18th, he announced he had found coal in still another hole he had dug in his dream town of South Hutchinson.

That same month The Wichita Eagle, jealous of the rival town's sudden prosperity, began a campaign of abuse against Hutchinson and was replied in kind by The News. The Eagle declared Hutchinson salt was unfit for any use. The Eagle was wrong.

It was in March, too, that the second salt company was organized as the Hutchinson Salt and Manufacturing Co., by Thomas Kurtz, George L. Gould, John F. Vincent and Frank Vincent, with the latter as general manager. Some of the capital was supplied by Preston B. Plumb, then a United States senator, Major Calvin I. Hood and C.A. Leighton of Emporia; they, however, sold out to Kurtz before the plant began operation in July, 1888, with a 300 barrel capacity.

From then on it was a dizzy whirl. Nabobs and salt jacks poured off the trains, hotels were filled, the cigar stores stocked the fanciest brands and whisky bottles with an expensive aroma accumulated in the trash barrels to shock those who wished industrial prosperity did not seem inevitably accompanied by temptations of the flesh.

Not all the eastern capitalists remained to drill, however. W.R. Burt, president of the Michigan salt association and friends made a junket to Hutchinson in June, 1888, after attending the Democratic convention at St. Louis. They declared the salt was here in quantity but there would be no profit in digging it. In the party was Joy Morton; he saw opportunity too, but he let others do the digging.

The third plant for instance was built in December, 1888, by the Diamond company. It was sold at sheriff's sale in 1892 to the mortgagee which the next year sold it to none other than Joy Morton.

No. 4 was started in the fall of 1888 by G.H. Bartlett, who had come from Providence, R.I. It was not an economical plant to operate, however, and he sold it to Samuel Matthews, who came clear from England. He enlarged the plant and ran it successfully.

Henry Hewger built the fifth plant, later operated as the Western Salt Co. In South Hutchinson, Houston Whiteside, W.E. Hutchinson and others built the Riverside plant. Still another, built by Anthony Oswald and J.M. Zinn, met financial reverses early and was purchased by the Standard Salt Co.

Indiana men built the Crystal Salt plant in South Hutchinson. There was the Pennsylvania Salt Co., the Great Western, the Wyoming, the Hutchinson Packing Co., the Barton Salt Co., the Union Ice and Salt Co., the Star and the Independent.

The latter was the 13th and was a jinx, as might be expected. E.H. Hollbrook, the promoter who had come from Port Huron, Mich., disappeared and the property was foreclosed. it was purchased by the Hutchinson Salt Co.

None of these plants was a mine. All of them used the same method of bringing salt from the bowels of the earth. A pipe was sunk, with another pipe inside it. Water was forced down the outside pipe and came back up the inside tube saturated with salt.

The first plants all operated with open steel pans, heated by fires. Salt was raked out of the boiling brine and was left on the edge of the pan to drain. In 1893, steam was piped through the pans, an improvement. The next year, direct vacuum pans were tried without success. But the later development of steam vacuum pans revolutionized the business by reducing the amount of heat required and those vacuum pans were the basis of today's evaporaing process.

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THE LATE 80's AND 90's were a period of consolidation. There were just too many salt plants. Markets were glutted and the price fell to a point where the best equipped operators were forced to run their business at a loss. An attempt was made to cut down production by agreement but no one seems to have paid much attention to his quota. The arguments and the feelings were hot.

At the peak of the first boom nearly three quarters of a million dollars had been invested in the salt industry here and there were 29 open steel pans and four steam grainer pans in production with an annual capacity of 900,000 barrels.

The competition of the first three years was so great eight of the plants were leased or sold. Nearly all of them were dismantled almost immediately or as soon as their equipment became obsolete. Those sold brought less than half the cost of construction.

Two men soon dominated the field, Jay Gould, the railroad magnate, and Joy Morton. Gould's interests stemmed from the Hutchinson Salt Co., or the "Vincent" plant. Morton's from the Diamond plant.

Gould entered the industry largely to keep the fright business for his Missouri Pacific railroad. If salt profited the railroad, Gould's interest profited the salt industry. He secured a change of freight rates that enabled the Hutchinson plants to compete with the older establishments in Michigan which had hogged the territory.

The larger companies also obtained rebates on shipments, which enabled them to put a greater squeeze on their smaller competitors.

The Gould and allied interests here were consolidated as the Hutchinson Salt Co. in the spring of '94, with a capital stock of $200,000. Frank Vincent was continued as general manager and John Vincent as secretary. Kurtz was president and there were two Goulds, Howard and George, on the board of directors.

A further consolidation in 1899 changed the name to the Hutchinson Kansas Salt Co., and on the final day of the new century all stock and interests passed into the hands of an eastern syndicate and Joy Morton became president of the company. The Morton Salt Co., with Joy as president, took over in 1910.

Earlier the Mortons had begun construction of what was to be the largest salt plant in the west. It burned in march, 1907, and was re-built by September of the same year, with a capacity of 3,300 barrels a day.

Joy Morton was not only enterprising in the construction of salt plants. He also knew how to keep the money coming in to pay for them. He incorporated as the Hutchinson and Arkansas River railway about 4,000 feet of switch track connecting the South Hutchinson plant with linesof the Santa Fe and the Rock Island.

He persuaded railroads, as compensation for shipments over his "road," to divide with the Hutchinson and Arkansas River line 25 per cent of the freight rate on salt shipped to Missouri river points. This division, of course, amounted to a rebate which gave Morton or his salt company an extra profit.

The interstate commerce commission ordered an investigation which was held in Hutchinson and attracted a large number of rail officials, whose private cars lined the yards. After an exciting hearing, in which Morton admitted that proceeds of the salt company went into one pocket and the freight divisions into the other, the commission ordered the paper "road" abolished and the cancellation of all tariffs which had been issued because of the Hutchinson and Arkansas' River's alleged existence.

The Morton company expanded into a national organization, buying up plants as they were developed, and the Hutchinson plant became only one unit, although always a major one and modernized.

LATE cOMER IN THE SALT industry but whose name is associated with it in Hutchinson as much as any man's today was Emerson Carey, a Hoosier, educated in Illinois, who came to Hutchinson in 1883 at the age of 20 and made an almost immediate success at a half dozen lines of endeavor.

By 1891, Carey was general agent of the Kansas and Texas Coal Co., wholesaler of lime, cement, plaster and hair, a buyer of hides and pelts, with four teams for local trade and two state salesmen - he was a man with many irons in the fire. He added an ice plant in 1896 and soon had the bulk of the town's business.

It was not until April 25, 1901, however, that he turned to the salt industry. On that day he organized the Carey Salt Co., with himself as president; C.W. Southward, vice president; W.D. Puterbaugh, treasurer; Edith Carey, secretary; and Arthur B. Carey, superintendent.

He bagan making salt with two grainer pans supplied with steam from his ice plant. His salt plant, with a capacity of 200 barrels a day, shipped its first carload in July, 1901, to a Winfield dealer.

As he improved his evaporating plant and perfected his sales organization to sell Hutchinson salt over a wide territory, Emerson Carey often wondered if a salt mine could not be operated successfully.

Carey knew well enough the reasons a mine had not been attempted here. Above the salt veins are two levels of underflow, the bottom stream being 125 feet beneath the surface of the ground. Engineers declared this water would make mining too hazardous, if not impossible. They foresaw all sorts of difficulty and disaster.

Carey, however, had nerve as well as vision. In New York, one firm of contractors, the Foundation Co., had been particularly successful in digging deep foundations on Manhattan's marshy land for skyscrapers. If they could build up, they could build down. Carey sent for their engineers.

They too, declared the job difficult but were willing to take a chance if Carey would pay them an extra $30,000 if it became necessary to develop the mine shaft under water. He agreed. The stipulation was unneeded. By sealing the flow at the two levels, the Foundation Co. was able to sink a shaft and keep the mine dry.

The first mined salt was brought to the surface in 1923. Development of the mine was rapid. With an almost inexhaustible strata of salt for the taking, Carey's men blasted and cut huge chambers, 50 by 300 feet, carved crystal white corridors through the bowels of the earth until there was enough room in the mine to house a fair-sized village. As the working chambers were cut at greater distances from the shaft, an elecric railway was installed to haul the loose salt.

The Carey mine became one of the sights of Hutchinson and thousands of visitors went down its shaft 645 feet below the surface to see the glittering caverns which were testimony to Emerson's vision and nerve.

Five years ago, shortly after Emerson Carey's death, the company developed another mine at Winnfield, La., where a fault in the earth's surface had heaped up the salt in dome formations.

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IN NAME at least, the oldest salt plant still operating in Hutchinson is that of the Barton company. It was organized in the fall of 1892 by the Barton brothers, Ed E. and Frank, and William Banta, who leased the packing house built by Toby and Booth and installed a three-pan plant with a 300-barrel daily capacity. This plant burned in August, 1903, and was replaced by a new plant with five steel grainer pans.

The brothers later severed connections and the company was operated by Ed Barton until his death in 1912 when it was taken over by C.H. Humphreys, a Virginian, who modernized the plant and remains president of the company to this day.

Barton primarily was a salt maker and originated the idea of steam-made salt. Humphreys had considerable knowledge of chemistry and continued to develop technique. He was a pioneer in the use of filters which cut six weeks of drying from the time of processing.

Another early organization which still exists but no longer makes salt is the Union Ice and Salt Co., formed in 1892 with a plant on East D. J.F. Redhead was president until 1900 when he sold out to Ed Gardner. Gardner still handles ice and coal but no salt.

* * *

WITH THREE COMPANIES, Morton, Carey and Barton, still in the business after the consolidations and dismantlings, the Hutchinson salt industry plugged along with marketable production averaging around 1,000 cars a month and improvements constantly being made in refining methods and production.

The World War gave the industry a "shot in the arm" from which it has never fully recovered. Devastated Europe was in need of meat and supplies. American packers did not have enough cured meat on hand to supply the foreign demand after peace came and adopted the emergency practice of shipping meat packed in salt to cure en route across the ocean. Many carloads of Hutchinson salt were sent abroad for this reason and the local plants were taxed to capacity. New equipment was installed - and the demand collapsed. Some of that equipment is not yet needed.

During the postwar boom, a shortage in salt cars developed. The local plants couldn't find means to ship until Frank Neal of the Barton company stumbled upon an idea when he saw Missouri Pacific sidings near Yaggy filled with cattle cars. Stealing a march on Carey and Morton, Neal arranged to have the stock cars spotted at the Barton plant where he cleaned out the dung and covered the sides of the cars with inexpensive roofing paper. For nearly a month, his was the only plant with adequate shipping facilities. To save the cost of cleaning cars, Neal made a deal with the reformatory to dig out the cars for nothing in return for use of the dung as fertilizer on reformatory farm land.

After the European demand ended, the industry went into the doldrums, picked up a bit in the late 20's and again slipped into the depression 30's. Today the outlook seems for the better.

It was not long after the war expansion that the rumor spread that Hutchinson was being undermined by the salt wells and that the whole town might fall in. Seeming credence to this rumor came when the old courthouse on South Main threatened to tumble down.

What seems actually to have happened is this. Salt wells give out after 16 or 18 years. Usually they are plugged up with cement so that the water underflow, near the surface, may not pur into them. But old wells near the courthouse site were not filled well enough, the underflow drained into them and the earth settled into where the water had been. It was the underflow and not the removal of the salt deposits which actually caused the damage.

With salt beds approximately 40 miles wide extending from Nebraska to the gulf, and with acres of salt still untouched near Hutchinson, the industry seems as permanent here as any business may be. Engineers are convinced that the supply will hold out long after the present generation is forgotten.

Hutchinson became a salt center through chance; and having pioneered the industry in the middle-west and discovered the vast beds beneath the prairie, the town seems destined proudly to retain its nickname of the "Salt City" as long as sodium chlorate is needed for the table shaker, the kitchen pot, the factory and the feed lot.