• The Gouinlock & Humphreys evaporation plant was the first to spring up.

Peppery tales spice salt discovery

Sunday, July 22, 1979

It was as simple as drilling a hole in the ground but it would be 16 years after C.C. Hutchinson gave his name to a parcel of ground by the Arkansas River in 1871 before someone drilled in the right spot.

After 16 years of weathering the pains of birth Hutchinson could call itself a city. And soon afterwards it would claim the title Salt City.

It was in 1887, after Indian raids, grasshopper infestations, drought, and economic devastation borne by land speculation, that a real estate promoter was to accidentally provide Hutchinson with its legacy.

The stories vary about the town's mood during the time the salt was discovered. Some are flavored with colorful bits of anecdote and scandal.

What is not disputed is the cast of characters.

Ben Blanchard had brought with him from Indiana (or Pennsylvania, depending on whom you read) a notion of making his fortune in Hutchinson real estate. He purchased a large tract in South Hutchinson and broke the tract into lots, built some homes, placed a sales advertisement in The Hutchinson News and waited. Nothing happened.

Then, according to at least one account, he tossed some creativity into his plan. Blanchard quietly erected a derrick on his land and then showed up hefting chunks of anthracite coal, claiming the discovery of a major deposit. A flurry of excitement followed, until Blanchard's claim was discovered to be unfounded. His alleged scheme fizzled, and his lots lay unbought.

He was becoming known then as "get-rich-quick" Blanchard.

Next, he claimed that he had come upon a gas discovery. By now his credibility was tarnished for those who remembered the coal episode. His investors were skeptical.

He offered free gas heating for the life of the gas deposit to anyone who would buy one of his lots. His scheme failed. (Actually, according to several accounts, there was a large gas deposit at the site but Blanchard apparently overlooked it.)

Finally, at six o'clock on the evening of Sept. 27, a Tuesday, Blanchard's drill began producing a white crystal - salt. On Sept. 28, 1887, one day after the drill brought up salt The Hutchinson News buried the following headline on page 4:

Hidden Riches

A Magnificent Vein of Pure Salt Struck in the Gas well Yesterday-Enough to Pay Abundantly For Working if Gas is not Found

The News cannot be overly criticized for downplaying the "discovery." Page 4 was the page on which local news was routinely placed. And considering the mood of the times in which massive real estate speculation was falsely inflating the worth of land based on a "boom" mentality, the news was greeted with "a grain of salt" by the local populace.

On Oct. 9, again on page 4, The News reported: "Two hundred feet of the finest rock salt in the world and the end is not yet. Hutchinson is the center of this commodity for the western world. The supply is inexhaustible."

It would later be found that the vein ranged 100 by 40 miles in area and was in places about 326 feet thick.

Salt deposits were also found in Ellsworth, Rice, Kingman, and Harper counties but none as extensive.

On Nov. 12, a Saturday, Blanchard returned from a visit to eastern salt plants. He told a reporter that the market tor salt was incredible. The Kansas City meatpacking houses alone purchased 60,000 tons of salt from New York plants at a yearly coat of $600,000. And now the resource was found right here in their backyard.

A salt firm had been formed during his eastern visit. "The company will be organized with a capital of $1,000,000," Blanchard told the reporter, "and work will be commenced in the South Hutchinson well as soon as the machinery arrives, which will be in a short time. I have no interest in the company, but will reserve a royalty on the salt mined."

Though Blanchard is credited with the discovery, not all recollections of him have been kind.

Willard Welsh, a former News reporter who wrote a history of Hutchinson in 1946, described Blanchard as nothing more than a con man who leaked news of his coal, gas, and salt "discoveries" only as a ruse to sell his South Hutchinson lots. Welsh claimed, based on the recollections of "old-timers," that Blanchard left town under a cloud after news of his salt discovery was found to be false.

Welsh described his exit this way: "(He) left Hutchinson disguised as a woman in order to eacape a mob which it is said formed to tar and feather him. While here, old-timers say, he was equally at home in a church pulpit or a gambling house."

In 1987, Emporia Gazette editor William Allen White told a writer: "Newspaper men, not lawyers, have governed Kansas for 40 years. They have bred a lot of keen-nosed reporters who can take a few 'makings' and roll up a good story."

With this in mind perhaps Welsh had taken a lean tale about Blanchard and had added a little fat of his own.

Houston Whiteside, the first editor of Tha Hutchinson News, in recalling the early days, wrote in 1910: "(As the aews of the salt discovery spread) a couple of New Yorkers slipped into town, investigated the report about salt, and before anybody knew it had erected and (placed) in operation the Gouinlock and Humphrey salt plant (northeast of the Arkansas River in the southeast part of the city.) They sold salt at $1.65 a barrel for many months before anybody else knew how to build or utilize the salt or had any very definite ideas as to what the field amounted to."

Then other investors began pouring their money into the earth. The quality of the salt was hailed as the purest ever found, more pure than that found in New York or Michigan, which, up to that point, had been producing the majority of American salt.

"Our salt beats the world tor purity and excellence," The News reported. "There can be no question as to Hutchinson's absolute supremacy in the industry."

Asked his opinion of Hutchinson salt compared to that found in nearby Ellsworth, a scientist responded:

"Well, if I were offered the two kinds of salt at the same price I would buy the Hutchinson salt, if I were buying salt"

It was estimated that the remains of the ancient sea buried beneath Hutchinson hid enough salt to supply the United States for the next 250,000 years.

Within a year of the discovery ten salt plants opened to produce salt from brine. No mine had yet to be established. That would come later when a man named Emerson Carey arrived in Hutchinson.

At one point Hutchinson boasted more than 25 salt plants. Production, as well as the city's economy, boomed. But cut throat competition, borne by overproduction and low profits, would whittle plant ownership to a few. The powerhouses, the Careys, the Mortons, the Bartons, would emerge as the salt kings.

But that would come later after a scandalous attempt to fix railroad shipping rates, influence peddling, and a lawsuit caused by fears that the courthouse was sinking into the salt mine below.

For the moment, in 1887, the people of Hutchinson were gloriously exuberant. They had good reason. Salt City had been born.

As investors prepared to start pouring their dollars into the ground to reap the white gold, The Hutchinson News reported: "Greater than an ordinary coal mine, greater than any gold mine will be the salt mines of Hutchinson in the near future."

Salt plants began popping up all over Hutchinson. in time some merged, were bought out, or failed, only to be taken over by the growing conglomerates.

Diamond Salt started up a year after the discovery, in 1888.

E.E. and Frank Barton and others would organize the Barton Salt Company. Joy Morton, along with other investors, would buy up several separate failing plants after oversupply and low profits emptied company coffers.

Meatpacking houses, ice companies, and a potash plant also became common sights.

Hutchinson's 1891 population of 5,200 nearly doubled by 1901, when 12,000 carloads of salt left the city by train that year.

By 1900, a man from Indiana by the name of Emerson Carey had joined in the glut of salt plants, but before he emerged as a salt king he would have to buck the established conglomerate led by Morton.

A representative of the Hutchinson-Kansas Salt Company (a number of salt firms merged under one name) approached Carey in 1901 and offered him a chance to sell out to the trust. A threat was thrown into the offer: sell to us or we'll glut the market. Carey refused the offer and was paid in kind. The syndicate dumped 35,000 barrels of salt onto the market and depressed prices. Salt fell from $1.65 to 55 cents a barrel.

Carey held on, wading through the economic disaster bolstered by profits from his coal and ice plants and his other business interests.

One Carey acquaintance quoted him as saying that he had seen "many a fly make a bull waggle its tail."

When the trust realized Carey would not be moved its representatives finally raised their prices and competition settled back to normal.

Carey would later say that he had learned some business sense from the experience. "Don't be bluffed out," he said. "The most profitable thing that any man can do is just to stick." "...you will find," he once told a local reporter, "that the men at the top are not geniuses; they are only pluggers."

Carey soon became the second largest producer of salt in the city but the fierce competition with the salt trust led by Morton was just beginning.

The steam that was used to evaporate the brine mixture that was pumped from the earth was supplied by Carey's ice plant.

Later when Carey decided to expand his facilities by opening a new salt plant east of town, he was "repeatedly arrested ... for breaking the city fire ordinances," according to one source. Carey's problems were allegedly irritated by city officials who had personal interests in the burgeoning salt trust. Carey continued to provide a cash bond for his appearance in court and proceeded with his expansion, suffering further arrests until the city gave in to his determination.

Carey and other independent salt producers, though, began losing profits. It was eventually learned that directors of the Hutchinson-Arkansas River Railway Company were also involved in the Hutchinson-Kansas Salt Company or had interests in other Morton holdings and as a result the salt trust was receiving preferential treatment from the rail lines at the expense of the independents.

The Interstate Commerce Commission hearings that followed in Hutchinson, and later in Chicago, resulted in state regulation of tariffs and established a system of freight rates. (It was also learned during the Chicago hearing that $16,000 - in what today's terms would be considered nothing less than kickbacks — had been paid to the Hutchinson-Arkansas Rail Company by three other railroad firms for the honor of shipping salt from Hutchinson.)

In 1905, Carey and others ran a franchise for Hutchinson's Interurban Railway System which would come in handy for carrying drilling equipment to the site on which Carey would sink his salt mine.

As Hutchinson's salt industry grew, and the business feud simmered between Carey and the trust, Carey branched out into other business ventures. But by the 1920s he was back at expanding his salt business. This time he would sink a mine.

During the sinking of the shaft in 1922 a vein of water was tapped. Deep-sea diver George Nelson was hired to seal off the water so construction could continue. Because of the weight of his suit and helmet, which included a 150-pound waist belt, he had to be carried to the mouth of the mine where he would be lowered into the shaft's 60 feet of water. Two men at the surface worked a hand pump to keep the hose to his helmet filled with oxygen.

Asked what would happen to him if his two associates stopped pumping air, Nelson responded grimly, "Say, that would sure make me sore."

By 1923 the shaft was finished at a depth of 645 feet.

Kansas Governor Jonathan M. Davis started the hoist that brought up the first load of rock salt from the mine as President Warren Harding looked on.

True to the fierceness of competition, a short-lived price war immediately followed between the Hutchinson mine and the American Salt Company at Lyons. It was later doused by mutual agreement.

By 1940 salt plants in Hutchinson had dwindled to five.

In 1979 three companies remained in Salt City to produce the white gold which gave the city its nickname.

Ironically, while 600 men were employed by 12 salt firms in 1888, today the three salt firms employ about 500 people.

The three salt companies currently in Hutchinson are the sources of rather mundane news, mostly tidbits about expansion and the need for industrial revenue bonds. Occasionally the industry spices things up a bit with a sinkhole or two causing local fatalists to begin worrying that the Salt City is collapsing to its doom. The stories are usually accompanied by striking aerial photographs of the encroaching geologic devastation.

Somehow, the salt stories today lack the abundance of some "items" the local news reporter once found buried in the industry such as the one in 1928, when he could report that the Reno County Courthouse, located then in the 200 block of South Main, was suffering seismic movement of the walls alleged to have been caused by Carey's nearby salt wells.

The county, the journalist reported, blamed Carey outright and sued for $200,000. Experts on both sides were called in and the suit was eventually dropped.

Somehow, that kind of hulabaloo is missing today, what with meatless corporate reports and the stiffness of profit charts. Somehow, the newspaper stories, without Carey and his "I won't be bluffed" philosophies, without the salt trust scheming, without the "boom," there is something missing. Somehow, the industry lacks the spice it once had.