Archaeological excavations of the Upper Salt Works.
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White Gold: Salt Production in Clarke County
Clarke County was home to three of the most important salt works used during the Confederacy. Prior to the Civil War, the natural salt springs were used by Native Americans and salt-deprived animals, but during the 1860s they produced much of the South’s salt supply.
Before refrigeration, salt was necessary in preserving meat. Prior the war, the South had purchased salt from England, but the North’s blockade prevented items from from entering. People became so desperate, some would dig the earth from under smokehouses, soak it, and boil out the salt. The Confederacy alone required 300 million pounds of salt each year.
New resources for salt became necessary, and Clarke County, with its three salt springs suddenly became very important. Three salt works were set up, two state-owned and one public. They were so named because of their location near Jackson, Alabama: Lower Works, 11 miles south; Central Works, six miles south; and the Upper Works, four miles north.
Since more salt came from deeper water, workers built hard wooden tubes fashioned with valves. It was repeatedly lowered into the mud and one full, emptied. It was cased with hollow logs. First, crude furnaces were made to boil the salt from the briney water, and later there were larger furnaces that would hold 100 gallon pots. Limestone was also used to make furnaces which would boil several shallow pans. Huge numbers of workers were needed to chop trees necessary to fire the hundreds of furnaces.
Salt was sent down the Tombigbee River to Mobile or taken by wagon to interior parts of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. Clouds of dust, churned up by the vast numbers of wagons, suspended in the air constantly. Drawn by two to four mules, the wagons were filled with syrup kettles, wash boilers, pans provisions, poultry -- anything used to make salt or used to trade for provisions. Each works had the appearance of a manufacturing city, with each wagon load of people finding a place to camp and setting up their furnaces.
Salt prices escalated so high, that workers were paid in salt rather than money. Prices rose from $1.25 per bushel of 50 pounds in 1861 to $50 by the end of the war. Knowing this was a strategic location, people feared a Union attack. Batteries of guns were installed at nearby Carney’s Bluff and Oven Bluff. When the rumor circulated that Mobile was captured, workers dropped what they were doing and fled, thus ending the widespread use of the works.
Today, interest in this geological wonder remains high. Archaeological excavations done by both the University of Alabama and the University of South Alabama have yielded many artifacts much more information about these important historical sites.