By Bruce Todd, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries
Located within the confines of Clarke County, Alabama, are several salt springs. These springs were once tapped for the purpose of producing salt for landowners and for commercial interests. Private entities likely made use of this source of salt for many years prior to the commercial production of salt, which began in this area in 1809. Salt works were established in three locations in the county and were known as the upper, central, and lower. Five sections of land at these locations were later deeded to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources in the mid 1930s and became core areas for the establishment of two wildlife sanctuaries.
It should be noted that these salt springs were not gushing streams, but instead were saline oozes or seeps. Pipes were sunk into these seeps, and saline was collected from them in large pots or vats. The brine was then boiled in order to evaporate the water and extract the salt. Salt production became, for a time, big business in these areas. Based on a report dated Aug. 12, 1816, the combined output of saline from these three salt works totaled over 138,000 gallons per day with a potential production rate of 750 bushels or 39,000 pounds of salt per day.
Relics from the old salt works have been excavated and studied by archaeologists and documentation has been made of the associated communities of people who worked at the saltworks or provided a related service or product. The plant and animal communities associated with one of the salt works have also been studied.
Researchers from West Alabama University conducted an inventory of both the flora and fauna located around one of the salt wells on the Stimpson Wildlife Sanctuary in southern Clarke County. The invertebrate fauna was surveyed over a two–year period, with collections made during all seasons of the year. Twenty-six species of invertebrates from six different phyla were identified. Included in this sample were hydra, flatworms, segmented worms, mollusks, and snails. There were also seven species of crustacean, including a freshwater shrimp, and 13 species of insects, all of which were in developmental stages.
A survey of the vascular plants conducted in the same area during fall and spring months revealed the presence of 23 species. All of the plants identified were considered to be wetland species, and three are categorized as halophytes or associated with salty soil. According to researchers, one of these plants was a special find. Sesuvium maritimum (slender sea purslane) had not collected since the early 1800s, and then it was known only to occur in Mobile County.
There has been much interest in the natural and social history of the salt springs of Clarke County. The importance of these springs prior to the availability of refrigeration can only be imagined. Although we now have better ways to preserve our food, salt is still very important to us today. The next time you season your food with salt, think of the many people that depended on the salt springs of Clarke County, Alabama.
For more information about the salt springs, contact the Clarke County Historical Museum at 251-275-8684 or West Alabama University at 205-652-3414.