In 1866 rancher and businessman Charles Hall added a kettle house and barn to his Colorado Salt Works in South Park. The only salt works and the second manufacturing facility built in Colorado, the buildings operated intermittently for several years before the arrival of the railroad brought cheaper salt from the eastern United States. Though the kettle house has deteriorated, it is perhaps the only example of a salt-producing kettle house still standing in the United States.
The salt springs located on the west side of South Park, about twenty miles south of Fairplay, was known to Ute Indians and early European traders long before it was used for commercial salt production. The springs attracted buffalo and antelope, which gathered there to drink and feed. These game animals in turn attracted Utes, who hunted the animals and got salt from the springs. European explorers and traders came to the springs for similar reasons, and the site acquired the name Bayou Salado (Salt Marsh).
Colorado Salt Works
Settlers and prospectors came to South Park in the Colorado Gold Rush of 1859. Two years later, J. C. Fuller made the first attempt to produce salt from the springs for commercial sale. Salt was in high demand in Colorado and was used primarily for processing mineral ores, as well as for various domestic and agricultural needs. Before the railroad came to Colorado, salt had to be shipped by wagon from Missouri. High demand, limited supply, and heavy shipping costs made for expensive salt.
Fuller attempted to take advantage of this situation by producing salt locally. In 1861 he ordered boilers (to boil off the water, leaving only the salt behind) and began to advertise his salt. Little evidence remains regarding the scale or success of Fuller’s venture, but he apparently abandoned the business in 1862.
The prospector and rancher Charles L. Hall then acquired Fuller’s operation and began to produce salt. Born in New York in 1835, Hall had come to Colorado in 1859, in search of gold. He followed reports of gold discoveries to South Park in 1861 and soon became associated with the salt works. In early 1862, he acquired the property. He established a cattle ranch called the Salt Works Ranch and began to make salt using Fuller’s equipment. By October 1862, he was selling salt for six or seven cents a pound, marketing it in Denver and other towns. By the following September he had five kettles in operation, with a capacity of 800–1,000 pounds of salt per day. The Halls also made a little extra money by operating a hotel, store, and sawmill at the ranch at various times.
In 1864 Hall convinced two investors to buy into his operation. He partnered with John Quincy Adams Rollins, a developer for whom Rollinsville is named, and General George W. Lane, superintendent of the Denver Mint, to establish the Colorado Salt Works.
The additional capital from his partners enabled Hall to build a kettle house and a barn in 1866. The kettle house was a large L-shaped building, about 125 feet long on the one-story kettle wing and 60 feet long on the two-story wing used for drying, sacking, and storing the salt. The kettle wing housed eighteen 130-gallon kettles for boiling the salty brine from the springs. It had a tall chimney on its east end, which became a prominent landmark in South Park.
Hall’s new kettle house and barn probably cost at least $50,000. They were in operation by December 1866 when Rollins took a sample of salt made in the kettle house to Denver. In an address to the Denver Board of Trade that month, former territorial governor John Evans noted that “extensive salt works are in operation in the South Park, supplying the home demand for the article, and capable of a production equal to any probable increase in the future demand.” By 1867, the Salt Works was producing about fifty tons of salt a month.
The Colorado Salt Works was the only salt-production facility ever built in Colorado, though there were several other salt springs in the state. The Salt Works was also the second manufacturing facility built in Colorado (after a cannon foundry in Denver). It produced at least 760,000 pounds of salt during its years in operation, with the total probably surpassing 1 million pounds.
Decline and Disuse
The Colorado Salt Works turned profits for several years but faced economic and legal difficulties in the late 1860s. The partners had trouble finding brine strong enough to make production efficient. A member of Ferdinand V. Hayden’s survey visited the Salt Works in October 1869 and reported that the brine was “not abundant or strong.” Expenses rose further when nearby timber ran out, forcing workers to travel to get fuel to boil the brine. Meanwhile, the Salt Works partners began to squabble. Lane left in 1868 or 1869 and his share went to Rollins, who got into a series of legal disputes with Hall because he had provided most of the money for the 1866 buildings. The death blow for the Salt Works came when the railroad reached Denver in 1870, making imported salt from the East much more available and affordable. The Colorado Salt Works stopped operating that summer.
The Salt Works was revived briefly in the early 1880s by a group of investors who formed the Colorado Salt Manufacturing Company and leased the facility from Hall. They planned to sink new wells at the springs and make salt by evaporation. The Fairplay Flume reported in December 1883 that the company had shipped its first carload of salt. Six weeks later, however, the project was abandoned because the high cost of production made profits impossible.
Hall’s Salt Works Ranch still operates in South Park and is owned by Hall’s descendants. For much of the early twentieth century, the ranch work was managed by Hall’s son-in-law, Thomas McQuaid, an important South Park rancher who lived into his late nineties. McQuaid helped the ranch grow to 80,000 acres at its height, though it has since decreased in size. The ranch is now a Centennial Farm and a historic site.
The Salt Works buildings, idle for more than 130 years, have become part of the ranch landscape. The Salt Works barn remains in good condition and has been used for storage. The one surviving wing of the kettle house has served as a shelter for the ranch’s cattle. The kettle house’s chimney stood until the 1990s, when it collapsed because it had been weakened by cattle rubbing against its base. Old pans and kettles are still present on the ranch; some are used to water livestock. One large kettle was donated to the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado) in the 1930s.