Salt production in South Australia

Salt mining in South Australia.

In Australia, salt is produced by solar evaporation from sea water, saline lake waters, underground brines and harvested from dry lake beds. Today about eighty per cent of all salt is produced in Western Australia whereas before 1966 it was South Australia which produced that amount. At present only fourteen per cent of all salt is produced in South Australia.

During the early 1800s, at the time of unofficial settlement at Kangaroo Island, salt was scraped from the surfaces of Muston Lake, White Lagoon, Salt Lagoon and some smaller ones near Kingscote. Most of this was used for domestic purposes, meat preservation and the tanning of hides which would be pegged out on wooden boards or on flat ground and coated with salt. Occasionally sealing vessels also called in to collect a supply of salt. Both hides and salt were bartered for tea, rum and sugar as these men had no need or use for money. 'Exports' of salt from Kangaroo Island to Adelaide in 1843 amounted to thirteen tons. In 1844 this had increased to eighty-two tons and by 1913 it was a massive twenty-thousand tons.

As early as 1868, the Adelaide Salt Company was incorporated with an office at the Queen's Wharf in Port Adelaide. It was not a very successful undertaking as it went into liquidation within two years. Attempts to harvest salt from the lakes on Yorke Peninsula were made from 1876 at Yorketown and from 1883 at Port Vincent. Around Yorketown some two hundred local farmers were involved in the scraping of the lakes resulting in suggestions to call the area Salt Lake City. Later most of the scraping was done by contract seasonal workers during the short period before the autumn rains.

In 1883 a prospectus was published for the South Australian Salt Company seeking a capital of 10,000 to buy a large salt lake near Snowtown. It belonged to T.F. Sabine of the Laura Brewery Company, J.H. Gordon of Strathalbyn and Fitzgerald Snowball of Adelaide who held it under lease from the South Australian Government for 21 years. The lake contained an area of 3,370 acres and was said to have a practically inexhaustible deposit of salt and gypsum. The reason for the formation of the company was the inability at present to supply demand with the limited resources available.

Castle Salt Company set up a refinery at Port Adelaide in 1890 and took up leases on Lake Fowler. Regular harvesting began in 1891 from salt lakes such as Lake Fowler, the largest saline lake on Southern Yorke Peninsula. During the early 1900s the Castle Salt Company, Commonwealth Salt Refining Company, 1905, and the Standard Salt Company, 1912, operated and shipped from Edithburgh. The Federal Salt Company operated works at Lake Newland near Talia. This was sold by auction in July 1904 when T.M. Hart was the plant's manager.

Between 1909-1910 salt was harvested from Tommey's Lake near Wauraltee under the direction of Joe Elliot. Using shovels and wheelbarrows they filled bags which were taken to Port Victoria.

During the 1950s Lake Fowler alone produced 10,000 tons annually. Other lakes producing salt regularly or intermittently were Lake Marion, Snow Lake, Peesy Swamp, and Salt Lagoon, all on Yorke Peninsula and much later from Lake Hart, about two hundred kilometres north of Port Augusta. On Kangaroo Island, the Commonwealth Salt Company constructed a railway from Muston Lake to American River, a distance of seventeen kilometres and a small jetty to transport the salt produced at its plant.

The method of obtaining salt from sea water evaporation were started in 1915 at Yorkey Crossing near Port Augusta, Port Paterson in 1915 and Port Price on Wills Creek in 1919. This method now accounts for most of South Australia's salt production. Production by the Solar Salt Company at Port Paterson was suspended in 1966. Salt production at Port Augusta started in 1917 by the Crystal Salt Company. The works were taken over by the Ocean Salt Company but abandoned in 1932. Solar salt production still occurs at Price, ten kilometres north of Ardrossan.

Natural salt production still occurs at Lake Macdonnell near Ceduna and Lake Bumbunga near Lochiel. Production was started here in 1913 and with the extension of the broad-gauge railway system to Snowtown some years later, salt previously carted ten kilometres to Snowtown and then by train to Wallaroo, now went directly to Port Adelaide.

During the 1920s the Lake MacDonnell Salt Co. Ltd. held more than 2,000 acres of the Lake MacDonnell salt basin, about fifteen kilometres south of Penong. During its seasonal operations it scraped the salt into heaps and stacked it on the bank to drain. It was then bagged and transported to Port Le Hunte for export by ship.

The total value of salt production in South Australia between 1841 and 1934 amounted to almost $7 million. Between 1970 and 1975 some major changes occurred in the salt mining industry in South Australia. During this period 700,000 tons were mined valued at $2.8 million. The main producers at that time being ICI Australia Ltd, from its solar evaporation plants at Dry Creek, Waratah Gypsum Pty. Ltd., from Lake MacDonnell, Ocean Salt Pty. Ltd. from its works at Price and BHP from Whyalla.

Today the largest producer is ICI, which established its plants at Dry Creek and Osborne in 1940. It now operates a completely mechanised harvesting system producing in excess of 500,000 tons per annum.

Production from South Australia, which has ideal climatic conditions for solar evaporation from sea water, has increased remarkably since that time. In 1990 it produced more than 940,000 tons. Most of the salt is exported to countries such as Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaya, and New Zealand.

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