It’s no secret that the recession has hurt Detroit a lot. But did you know that there used to be a huge working-class industry right under the streets of Detroit? Under the city of Detroit, there was a very large salt mine that was basically an underground business. This underground salt mine covered more than 1,500 acres and had more than 100 miles of roads. This mine goes all the way from Dearborn to Allen Park. The Detroit Salt and Manufacturing Company owned the mines and ran them. From the early 1920s until 1983, when salt prices dropped and forced it to close, it did very well. When business was good, they gave guided tours to the public. School groups liked these tours a lot. At 12841 Sanders Street, you can still see the entrance, but only delivery trucks can use it. Read on to find out what they are really giving you.
So how did all this salt end up under the city of Detroit? A land area that is now called the Michigan Basin was there about 400 million years ago. This area was far from the ocean, but it kept sinking into the ground. As the ocean went down because it kept sinking, salt water from the ocean poured in. When the ocean water dried up, it left behind a lot of salt.
The Niagara Escarpment took millions and millions of years to form. This was a big area of basalt rocks that covered a lot of land, including the whole state of Michigan. Because of this rock, the salt mine was buried and kept safe 1200 feet below the Earth’s surface. Some estimates say that there are about 71 trillion tons of salt in these mines. Even though salt is not a hot item right now, it used to be. In China, salt coins were used as money a long time ago, and salt cakes were eaten in the Mediterranean. Even the Romans used salt to pay their soldiers.
In 1895, when the salt was found in Detroit, everyone was happy. In 1906, 11 years later, the Detroit Salt and Manufacturing Company came and decided to start digging a shaft down to the salt. But during this process, they went bankrupt because the project was so expensive, and a lot of workers died. But they didn’t give up. In 1910, the Detroit Salt and Manufacturing Company finished the 1,050 foot shaft and started working on the second salt bed. The Watkins Salt Company bought them. After the shaft was finished and the second salt bed was made, they were able to make more salt and clean it better. By 1914, they could make around 8,000 tons of rock salt every month.
The International Salt Company, which bought the mine from the Watkins Salt Company because of how well it worked, decided to make it even better. They hired more people and used better tools, like electric power, trains, and mechanical shovels. In 1922, they decided to build a second shaft, which they finished in 1925. This made the mine bigger and cut down on the time it took to bring the salt to the surface.
It was not easy at all to mine underground. Even now, living in an underground mine isn’t easy, so you can only imagine how hard it was back in the 1900s. They decided to use donkeys to help with the work, but because of the conditions, many of the donkeys would die too soon. A lot of the time, the equipment that was used underground stayed there as well. It was just too hard to get them back through the 6×6 foot narrow shaft opening.
People have said that the mine was clean and didn’t have any mice or rats. Joel Payton, a miner in Detroit, says, “One reason we don’t have rats in our mine is that the rats would only have our leftovers to eat. Also, there are no rats, cockroaches, or other living things in our mine. There are also no remains of animals that lived in the past.
They kept digging in the Detroit Salt Mines until 1983, when it was no longer profitable. This mine wasn’t used until 1997, when it was bought by The Detroit Salt Company LLC. In 1988, they started making salt again, and they still mine salt today. They no longer mine table salt, though. Now, they mine road salt, which is used during Michigan’s very cold winters.
I’m glad that this piece of history didn’t shut down and close their doors for good. Even though it has been sold a few times, the city of Detroit has a lot of history that most people don’t even know about.