Before coal, before oil, even before corn, the biggest and busiest industry in Illinois was salt.
This once-booming enterprise was located just southeast of Equality, in southern Illinois’ Gallatin County. The heavily brined water was pulled from springs, boiled down and the salt laid out to dry. Native Americans did this for generations, then they taught the process to the French. In 1763, after the French and Indian War, control of the salt springs went to the British.
When the United States gained control of the region, government officials knew they had a valuable natural resource on their hands. Salt was a nutrient necessary for survival, a food preservative necessary for westward expansion and it could be traded like cash. On March 3, 1803, U.S. officials authorized the Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, to begin leasing the salt springs as a source of revenue.
In 1809, Ninian Edwards was commissioned first governor of Illinois Territory. One of his main duties was as superintendent of the Great Salt Springs. He oversaw leasing the saltworks, collecting the rent and shipping the federal government its salt share, which was 10% of all salt produced. Early leases show that the government expected a minimum of 12,000 bushels annually, with penalties if production fell short.
In 1812 the federal government designated 100,000 acres around the salt springs as the “Saline Reservation.” This ensured that any wood or coal on the land would be used only for salt production.
When Illinois became a state in 1818, it was granted full control of the saltworks.
Extracting the salt was backbreaking work, requiring a large labor force. Historian George W. Smith outlined the process in his 1912 book, A History of Southern Illinois:
"Large iron kettles holding from forty-five to ninety gallons each were brought down the Ohio from Pittsburgh to Shawneetown. Long trenches were dug in the ground and lined with rock on the sides. The kettles were set over these trenches and the spaces between filled with mortar or mud, a chimney was constructed at one end of the long row of kettles and a fire kept constantly burning underneath the kettles which were filled with the brine…. The fuel was the timber off the reservation… but soon the timber was cut for one or two miles…. The furnaces were now moved to the timber in some instances some three or four miles away. The water was carried to the furnaces in wooden pipes…. There were hundreds of men employed, lumbermen, wood haulers, firemen, hands to attend to the evaporating pans, coopers, inspectors, store-keepers, rivermen, hoop-pole merchants, and overseers…. Negro slaves were the principal laborers."
The use of slave labor seems to go against Illinois’ legacy as a free state. After all, in the state’s first constitution (1818) Article 6 Section 1 outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude. But Section 2 made a single exemption: Slave labor was still permitted at the Gallatin County salt works. The slaves just had to come from another state.
One saltworks owner, John Crenshaw, leased slaves from Kentucky to extract the salt while he ran a side business of catching and returning runaway slaves. He also kidnapped Illinois’ free Blacks and sold them downriver. As a legitimate businessman and a criminal slave trader, he became one of the state’s wealthiest men.
The Great Salt Springs provided jobs and steady revenue for the surrounding counties and the state, but they also brought fortunes to the few on the backs of the many. In the 1870s, plummeting prices and a financial panic shuttered the southern Illinois saltworks for good.