Salt works reconstruction (Unfinished)
In a town full of architectural follies, it is folly itself to choose a favorite. But George Bryant’s abandoned salt works project of the 1970s surely ranks near the top for its scope and ambition, its persistence for more than 30 years and the fact that it hides in plain sight, just behind Angel Foods but probably unnoticed by 90 percent of the store’s patrons.
To appreciate the project fully, it helps to know that salt production was a keystone of the economy and central to Provincetown life. Clean, pure salt was needed to preserve cod and other freshly caught fish by drawing moisture out of the gutted, beheaded bodies. Before refrigeration, such rudimentary preservation was essential. Otherwise, there was no way to keep the fish for local consumption nor to ship it out to mainland markets.
It helps further to understand that what Bryant managed to build — and what still stands today — is the bottom half of a windmill, which was a critical part of the salt-making process. Try to excise from your mind’s eye the customary, romantic image of a masonry grain mill. Think, instead, of something more like an wood-frame oil-drilling derrick with a propeller on top. The diptych below compares Bryant’s unfinished framework to a photo of a windmill from the collection of the Brewster Historical Society. “Pump mill” is a more descriptive term, because these machines harnessed wind power to pump sea water from the harbor, through pipes of hollowed-out logs spliced together with white lead joints.
There were 78 salt works in Provincetown in 1837, according to The Provincetown Book by Nancy W. Paine Smith, suggesting at least that many windmills along the shoreline. As described by Smith and by Jennifer Stone Gaines and John York in “Saltworks” (Spiritsail, Woods Hole Historical Museum, Winter 2007), evaporation worked in a three-step process, using broad but shallow vats stepping down in three tiers. The uppermost array of vats, into which the sea water was initially pumped, was called the “water room.” Here, as the initial evaporation took place, a brine emerged that grew heavier in salt and minerals as the proportion of water diminished. The goal of Step 1 was to create a brine so salty that no marine life could continue growing in it.
This brine was then drained down to the second tier of vats, in an array known as the “lime room” or the “bitter water room.” In Step 2, lime and gypsum would begin to sink down to the vat floor, creating an ever more concentrated brine capable of producing crystals of sodium chloride — edible salt.
The concentrated brine, largely free of calcium salts, was drained down to the lowermost tier of vats, called the “salt room.” Here, in Step 3, the pure crystals could at last be harvested. Depending on the cooperation of the weather (the vats had to be covered during rainfall), the process could take three to six weeks. About 350 gallons of sea water — picture seven 55-gallon drums — yielded roughly 80 pounds of salt.
Complicated as this may sound, it was vastly more efficient than boiling seawater in kettles and far cheaper than paying for salt imported from the Mediterraanean or the Caribbean. In fact, Smith said, the process brought the price of salt down to $1 a bushel from $8. But just as the whaling industry would later be upended by the manufacture of kerosene, the salt industry was devastated by the discovery of salt mines in central and western New York State.
The salt works that once stood on this site, owned by the Cook family, were built between 1810 and 1820 and dismantled around 1850. George Bryant’s father and mother bought the property in 1945 and were in the process of building a new bulkhead in 1949, when George was 12. During the excavations, Bryant told me in a 2009 interview, a length of white pipe piping was unearthed. It was about 12 to 14 inches in diameter, he said, with a four-inch hole running through it that had been drilled by a custom auger. “There were companies on the Cape that specialized in boring wooden pipes,” Bryant said.
Bryant was inspired in the late 1970s to recreate the salt works. “The idea was to build a tower plus three little vats,” he told me. Work came to an end with the tower half finished. “My second wife, Rosemary, she didn’t approve of it. So I stopped. What was I supposed to do?”
When the first edition of Provincetown Walking Tours was issued, Bryant’s project was described as unfolding “at this writing” and Barbara Malicoat, whose lovely illustrations graced all three booklets (East End, Center and West End) created a fanciful folkloric array of windmills, reproduced above. The reference and the drawing were eliminated in the reprint.
Bryant said in 2009 that he hadn’t entirely given up the idea of finishing the job. “Maybe sometime,” he said, seeming much more wistful than hopeful.
“There were 78 salt works in Provincetown in 1837… suggesting at least that many windmills along the shoreline….”
Interestingly, the 1836 map linked below (compiled with data from 1835) showed only 56 windmills, some of which *seem* as if they might have been associated somehow with more than one “works”. Don’t ask me how, exactly, but it’s more likely than the alternative interpretation that 20 windmills sprung up during those two years, while the market was in decline.
Incidentally,according to Paine-Smith, Provincetown’s total salt production was 3.4 million pounds (1,500 metric tons) annually.
The key to the demise of the town’s salt industry was not just the discovery of the Syracuse salt deposits, but more importantly, the opening of the Erie Canal (“the ditch that salt built”) in 1830. That distribution link enabled Syracuse to enter the nationally-competitive stage.
Paine-Smith isn’t entirely clear as to why the price of salt dropped to $1 per 70-lb bushel in 1837, down from $8 around the turn of the century. Yes, part of that was the lower cost of production, but I suspect the heavy competition (both from within and from NY) played the larger role in that price decline.
What an erudite, illuminating addition. Thank you.