Himrod salt mines: short-lived, some lingering questions
HIMROD--They loom against the skyline standing guard over what looks like vast empty fields now, but once they served a very important purpose. Once engineering feats of wonder, now they are the decaying remains of what was a very lucrative mine. Enough time has now passed that the younger generations who live or visit in this area often ask, "What are those two towers in Himrod?" However, if you are in your late 40s or older, you know exactly what they are, what they once promised for our area, but most important, how they could be a symbol of the old expression, "Easy come, easy go," except there was truly nothing easy about them. Those two towers are a part of the abandoned remains of Morton Salt's Seneca Lake Mine. The mine's history is short and filled with extreme ups and downs, and although it was once vibrant and productive, it only lasted for approximately five years.
Morton Salt is an American company producing salt for food, water conditioning, industrial and highway use. Their table salt is found in the round blue container with the little girl and her umbrella happily tripping through the rain with the expression, "When it rains, it pours" under her sweet little Mary Janes. The company that became Morton Salt began in 1848 in Chicago. By 1885, Mr. Joy Morton held the controlling interest in this salt company and in 1910, he incorporated the firm as "Morton Salt." This was when that familiar round blue container with the tin pour spout was invented and patented. The "Umbrella Girl" would make her debut in 1912, along with the now famous slogan that speaks of rain and free pouring salt. Morton Salt produces and sells all forms of salt: sea, table and rock salt. They use all three types of salt production: solar evaporation, artificial heat evaporation and mining. They have plants and/or mines located in Michigan, Kansas, Utah, California, Ohio, Louisiana, Texas and New York.
It was back in 1925 that Morton Salt began its interest in Himrod, and its underlying salt deposit. They purchased approximately 200 acres, which comprised land on Seneca Lake's Severne Point and in Himrod. Their intention at that time was to build an artificial heat evaporation plant on Severne Point, very similar to what is in Watkins Glen currently. However, those plans never transpired. The land sat untouched with Morton Salt seemingly having lost interest in it for many a decade. Then in 1966, Morton suddenly took interest in their Seneca Lake holdings. They sent field representatives out to explore the area, drill core samples and negotiate with adjacent area farmers and land holders for mineral and mining rights. The core samples were rich and pure in good, minable rock salt. The company, happy with the results of the first core samples, sent out more field reps to take additional samples and to widen their mining rights to a five-mile radius from what was to be the central mine in Himrod. Morton Salt was excited about what looked like a very profitable place to mine for a good quality and quantity of rock salt.
In 1969, with Morton Salt more than pleased with the second set of core samples, they decided to go ahead and begin mining operations. Cementation Corporation, out of Toronto, was contracted by Morton Salt to gain access to the underground salt by constructing the necessary mine shafts and headframes. Work began in February of 1969 with the construction of the mine shafts and subsequent towers to gain access to the rich salt layer. This large and rather deep salt layer spreads from the Appalachian Mountains up through Canada, and our area is part of this large geological salt deposit.
The work was hard and tedious to get down 2,000 feet under the surface where this salt deposit lies. The two circular shafts, 12 to 18 feet in circumference, were dug simultaneously with two separate crews of workers who worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The ground and bedrock was drilled, dynamite laid in the drilled holes, blasted, and then all the debris was hauled out, or mucked out as it is referred to in "miner" speak. Forms were built, reinforcement rods installed and concrete poured. Because only 20 feet of dirt and rock can be removed at one time, this process of drilling, blasting, mucking and pouring is repeated over and over again as they progress deeper into the ground. When the salt layer was finally reached, excavation began to make a large cavernous room, often called the maintenance room, that linked the two shafts together. This room also provided space for the needs of the miners and all the necessary equipment and machines that are used in mining. A concrete floor was poured in the maintenance room to facilitate easy movement of machines and personnel.
Once the underground work was completed, the above- ground temporary headframe which facilitated the construction of the shafts was removed and work commenced to build the permanent headframes (towers). The two headframe towers were 126 feet and 225 feet tall, respectively. The larger tower was the production shaft. This was where the salt would be hauled up to the surface using large electrically operated hoists, pulleys, cables and buckets. The shorter shaft was for the transportation of the miners and equipment to and from the mine. But most important of all, the headframe towers also had the electrical lines, water pipes and air circulation fans the miners needed to survive in the 79 degree mine 2,000 feet underground. It has been reported that the Seneca Lake mine was one of the most sophisticated mining operations in the nation because of its technologically advanced access and operational techniques.
On the surface, the headframe towers were climbing higher and higher into the skyline. Bids to build all the necessary above-ground buildings were accepted, and construction of the offices, changing house, mill, production building, storage buildings, railcar switchyard and even an electrical substation began. Down on Severne Point, the pump house was built and all the necessary electrical lines, water lines and booster pumps were laid in place up the west slope of Seneca Lake to provide the mine in Himrod with an endless supply of much needed water.
Office employees, miners and other specialized personnel were hired, equipment was purchased, and everything was laid in place to begin the actual mining operation by late 1971. Mining vehicles and equipment were lowered down through the shafts into the maintenance room. Vehicles like 988 Caterpillars, front-end loaders, bull dozers, roof bolters, Uni-Mogs and personnel carriers were dismantled above-ground, loaded onto the elevators in the shaft towers, lowered into the mine and then re-assembled. Some of the vehicles because of their size had to go into the elevators standing on their ends. Finally, everything was in place and the mining could begin. Mining was slow at first, but by the beginning of 1973, Morton Salt's Seneca Lake Mine was in full production.
The Seneca Lake Mine was a "Room and Pillar" mining operation, or sometimes referred to as "Checkerboard" mining. A former employee referred to it as "Alleyways and Pillars." The salt was removed in a checkerboard pattern leaving empty spaces (rooms) with columns (pillars) of salt holding up the salt ceiling. These pillars of salt were left in regular intervals throughout the rooms. The size of the rooms depended on the strength of the salt pillars and the depth of the salt mine itself. The deeper the mine, the greater the external pressure, which limited how much salt could safely be removed out of a square foot area. The average ratio of salt removed to form a room was around 45-65 percent. The amount of salt removed was also dependent on how thick the ceiling of salt overhead was. In the New York salt deposit, the salt ceilings could be anywhere from eight and 18 feet thick. The thicker the ceiling, the more salt that could be mined without fear of collapse.
The actual mining process was slow, hard and very dangerous. The miners began by entering into the personnel tower, stepping into the shaft elevator and taking the long ride down to the maintenance room at the foot of the shaft. After walking across the maintenance room, they were faced with a solid wall of salt and rock, mostly salt in a rich deposit, and strategized how to proceed with the removal of the salt wall (face). The first step was to drill the face in a pattern of one and a half inch diameter holes. These holes go 10 feet deep into the face. A drilling machine called a "Jumbo" accomplished this task. The next step was to undercut the salt wall they had just drilled. This was done by using a machine that looked like a giant chain saw. It cut a four-inch to seven-inch high by 10 feet deep gash at the bottom of the salt face at the floor level of the room. This left a smooth floor of salt for the first room, and aided in the collapsing of the salt face after the explosives were detonated. Finally, the explosives were placed in the holes that were drilled into the salt face, and after all the miners had evacuated the shaft, the explosives were electronically detonated from the ground surface. When the miners returned to the floor of the mine, they found several hundred tons of rock salt from the blasted face lying on the mine floor. The pieces could range from dust size to boulder size weighing several hundred pounds. A loading machine capable of carrying 10 tons gathered up all the blasted salt. This machine had two wide arms that swept the salt together and placed it into the front loaders. The front loaders carried the rock salt to the production shaft and loaded it into the skips. A skip is a huge bucket-like carrier that can hold 21 tons of salt. The skips, once filled, were hauled up the production shaft to the surface by the hoist, cable and pulley systems which were located in the headframe tower. This process was repeated until a room was formed. A room could be 30 feet square with pillars every 10 feet or so. But once again, the size of the room depended on the depth of the mine, the thickness of the salt ceiling and the strength of the pillars.
Once the blasted salt was transported out of the way, the roof bolter machine would move in. A miner placed a screen on the salt ceiling and used this machine to place six foot long bolts through the screen into the ceiling. This was done to strengthen the salt ceiling and, hopefully, prevent it from a collapse. Water was constantly used to wet the mining areas to keep the dust down. Upon reaching the ground level, the coarse rock salt was removed from the production tower, screened, ground to the correct size and prepared for shipping to the various vendors. Mining is neither an easy or safe job by any means. This is a very brief explanation of the difficult, complex and dangerous process of salt mining.
At its peak, the Seneca Lake Mine was producing enough salt to ship out 1,200 tons daily. The mine could also fill 20 railroad cars, at 100 tons per car, per day. Most of the salt mined (99 percent) was rock salt that was for highway use in the winter. Only about 1 percent of the salt mined out of Himrod was called "fine," and this was used for agricultural purposes to supplement animal feed. Over 150 people were employed at the mine, many with very specialized fields of education and training to work and operate a salt mine. The boost to the local economy was most welcomed and needed at that time. Everything seemed to be going fantastic for Morton's Seneca Lake Mine. So, what happened that just a few years later, on May 18, 1976 to be precise, a staff meeting at the mine was called by the Morton Salt executives? At this meeting, everyone was told that the mine production was to cease immediately, and that a skeleton crew would remain to close the Seneca Lake Mine down permanently. (Next: The age-old question: Why?)