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From the Files of the Lassen Historical Society: Buffalo Salt Works

Thursday, January 13th, 2022

Buffalo Salt Works near the turn of the century from the Digital Collection at UNR

by Susan Couso

Throughout history, salt has been a vital part of human existence. It is necessary for all animal life. Too little salt and you will die, too much salt and you will die.

For centuries it was a valued commodity, fought over and prized. The Latin word for salt is ‘sal’, and it was used for currency in many places. In fact, the English word ‘salary’ is said to come from this practice.

Salt is not only a seasoning, but it is used for many industrial purposes such as tanning leather, dying fabrics and the farming and dairy industries. Salting is also an ancient form of food preservation.

As emigrants streamed into northeastern California and settled the area, they naturally looked for a supply of this important mineral.

In 1864, as a five-pound sack of salt was selling for $.62 in Lassen County, Marion Lawrence and Frank Murphy claimed the land surrounding the Buffalo Salt Marsh in Nevada.

The marsh, on the northwest edge of the Smoke Creek Desert, was a bonanza of salt. The playa was covered in places with a layer of sodium sulfate, which was several feet deep.

This sodium sulfate was not ‘table salt’ but a form of sodium used for industrial purposes. By pumping the saline water and letting it dry in pools, the salt could be collected. It was ground into different grades and a small amount of fine table salt was recovered.

Through the years, the Buffalo Springs Salt Marsh was owned by numerous entrepreneurs who improved the site, and by the 1870’s it was in ‘full swing’. By 1880, B. F. Murphy oversaw the business. He employed five men and shipped over 350,000 pounds of salt ninety miles to Reno.

By 1896, when work began to wane, the marsh was producing about 250 tons of salt each year.

Buffalo Springs was a booming place. Stage travel to and from Reno cost $9.00, and the stage left Reno every morning about 7:00 a.m., except Sundays. Mail was brought to nearby Sheepshead Station, and then delivered to Buffalo Springs.

In Susanville, sixty-two miles away, Samuel R. Hall was operating the Buffalo Springs headquarters. He advertised the finest pure white salt available anywhere, and at a lower price!

By the end of the 19th century, the Buffalo Springs Salt Works had mostly ceased operations, and lay decaying on the marsh. But well into the early 20th century, residents as far away as the Madeline Plains would take wagons and trek to the marsh to obtain their supply of this most essential mineral.

If you are a fan of our weekly history stories you should join the Lassen County Historical Society! It’s a fun way to be a part of our county’s rich history. When you sign up, you’ll receive regular Historical Society newsletters with interesting stories and information. Membership is open to anyone with an interest in area history.

Through your membership you help preserve local history. You can download a membership application by clicking here.

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