Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Turk Island Salt Works, Alvarado

Turk Island Salt Works, Alvarado (Alameda Co.), ca. 1883
Turk Island Salt Works, Alvarado (Alameda Co.), ca. 1883. California Historical Society, CHS2013.1387.
By Shelly Kale

It was not just gold that Bay Area entrepreneurs and fortune-seekers recognized as a profitable commodity in the mid-nineteenth century. Within a few decades of the Gold Rush, the production of sugar, flour, and salt in the region was well underway.

For millennia, indigenous peoples had harvested salt from evaporated tide pools along the bay, using it for cooking and trading. Following the discovery of gold, a seemingly endless demand for salt—particularly its use in silver refining—led to controlled operations: salt gatherers began enclosing the natural salt ponds with levees made of mud. Now separated from the bay, the ponds became more like salt lakes, altering and denigrating the bay-estuary ecosystem.

Charles A. Plummer entered this rapidly changing landscape in the eastern bay marshlands in the 1860s. With his father John and brother John Jr., he became a leading salt manufacturer in Alameda County. In 1868, near Alvarado at the mouth of Alameda Creek, the Plummer brothers established the Turk Island Salt Works—a name inspired, perhaps, by Grand Turk Island in the Caribbean, where a profitable trade in the “white gold” had existed since the 1600s.

Like other salt manufacturers, the Plummers used windmills—visible at the far right of this gelatin silver copyprint—to pump brine into salt pans. In 1869, they expanded their operations, with offices at 14 Spear Street in San Francisco. By 1878, Turk Island Salt Works was the second largest salt operation in Washington Township, one of the county’s six principalities. In December 1900, the Federal Salt Co. took control of Turk Island and other salt works in Washington and Eden townships, where salt plants extended along the bay shore from Mr. Eden to Newark.

Today efforts are underway to restore much of the Bay Area marshlands where salt was harvested, including approximately 15,000 acres of former Cargill Salt ponds in the South Bay.

This article originally appeared in Spotlight, a feature of the California History journal (Vol. 92, #1), published by the University of California Press in association with the California Historical Society. Conceived by former journal editor and historian Janet Fireman as a last-page photographic feature that itself would evoke a lasting image for journal’s readers, Spotlight draws from CHS’s vast and diverse collection of California photography and photographic history.

Sources for this essay include: California Digital Newspaper Collection, Pacific Rural Press, vol. 60, no. 24, 15 Dec. 1900; Stanford University Spatial History Project, “From Salt Ponds to Refuge in San Francisco Bay,”; “Salt Cay History,”; “Salt of the Earth: 1880–1889,” in Philip Holmes and Jill M. Singleton, Images of America: Centerville, Fremont (Charleston, S. C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2011), 17–20.

California History, Vol. 92, Number 1, pp. 75–76, ISSN 0162-2897, electronic ISSN 2327-1485. © 2015 by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.

Shelly Kale is Publications and Strategic Projects Manager at the California Historical Society. Formerly Managing Editor of California History from 2007 to 2013, she has held editorial and administrative positions in academic, museum, educational, electronic, and trade and mass-market publishing.

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