in Western New York
Salt was much in demand in 19th century Western New York for domestic and culinary needs from preparing barrels of hog meat and sauerkraut to raising bread in the absence of yeast. It was even blamed for eczema-like skin eruptions, which however—according to an 1877 ad—could be treated with "Centennial Cordial and American Indian Aboriginal Invigorator."
For most of the century, Western New York salt came from the Syracuse area, where it was evaporated from brine springs. Then in 1882, Carroll Cocher, an amateur geologist, predicted that salt lay beneath his Livingston County land in Griegsville. Despite official geological doubts, he was soon proved correct, because, as Genesee Valley historian, Irene Beale, points out: "Beneath the Genesee Valley lie the richest deposits of a network of salt seams extending from Lake Ontario south to West Virginia and beneath Lake Erie into Michigan and Ontario." All left over from an ancient inland sea.
Backed by six investors, he struck a major seam of rock salt at a depth of 1000 feet Test wells, financed from New York City, confirmed the find. "Cocher, who could not afford to invest in the operation, later said," according to Irene Beale, "that the gift of two cigars from a member of the company was all he ever received for his discovery."
While more than 20 companies pumped brine in the area, the Empire Salt Company headed by William Foster developed the first rock salt dry mine in the state and the second in the U.S. Foster's company was soon shipping 400 tons of rock salt daily. Foster's name, spelled backward as Retsof, was later applied to the mine.
Irene Beale continues: "The Retsof Mine revolutionized salt production in the nation. It supplied salt for packing meat, freezing ice cream, making soap, curing hides and other uses. [More recently much of it finds its way onto our winter roads.] Since mined salt was cheaper than the evaporated product, and the only other salt mine in the country was [in] Louisiana, Retsof soon dominated the industry." Three competing mines within 15 miles drastically depressed the market, but Retsof survived. Dozens of brine wells in Livingston and Wyoming counties also suffered. "In 1901 the International Salt Company was formed, absorbing Retsof and several mines in other areas."
At the turn of the century, individual miners, working by candlelight and on a quota system, drilled, picked, hammered, and shovelled salt chunks into mule-drawn carts. The overall daily output was 400 to 600 tons. The mules were stabled below, "never seeing daylight until they were put out to pasture."
When the miners were "put out to pasture," there were no retirement benefits or compensation for accidents. The pay almost a century ago was, however, considered good—a dollar and a half a day for a six day week. And "the company built [four-room] houses, which...rented for $4 a month. Workers used tickets for their purchases in a general store and meat market. A company-owned reservoir supplied not only water for the plant but also ice to the store."
The earliest miners tended to be Irish, but they were gradually replaced by Italian immigrants, and a "Little Italy" sprang up, although in time general mixing prevailed. In 1957 employees were allowed to purchase their houses at attractive prices, and the company's street, water, lighting and sewage systems were donated to the Town of York, within which Retsof lies. Some current miners are the second or third generation of families working the Retsof salt lode.
In 1923 the mine was modernized, with "[e]lectric trolleys [replacing] mulecarts..." Miners wore carbide lamps mounted on their caps. About 15 years ago a conveyor system, the largest in the country, replaced rail cars in the nine square miles of excavated rooms connected by 300 miles of tunnels and passages. "Salt mines are considered safer than other mines, since salt is neither a health hazard, flammable or subject to explosion. And ventilation maintains a constant temperature and humidity, while carrying off smoke from blasting and engine exhausts. Irene Beale added, in 1986, that, "The Retsof Mine has three times won a safety competiton with all other underground mines in the United States."
During its 1984 centennial year the mine produced more than four and a half million tons and became perhaps the first deep salt mine "in the world to have produced one hundred million tons of rock salt." Five years later International Salt merged with Diamond Crystal to become AKZO Salt Inc., the current owner.
© 1993, Robert G. Koch