Shaking It Out

The history of salt production in the Turks & Caicos Islands (Part II).

Story & Postcard Images Courtesy Jeff Dodge

Salt was the most important industry on the Turks & Caicos Islands for almost 300 years. Salt was of critical importance, not only for culinary purposes, but to preserve meat and fish. Since salt production involved so many people and occupied so much land, it would be a photographer’s obvious subject.  Consequently, picture postcards made from early photographs of these islands included pictures of the salt production process. All the postcards included in this article were printed from photographs taken between 1905 and 1933.

Synopsis (part I)

This 1964 photo shows the “salt raker” on the left using a toothed rake to break up salt crystals, while the man on the right is raking salt into piles using a solid rake.

Bermudians began systematically collecting salt by solar evaporation on Salt Cay in 1673 and on Grand Turk in 1678. There were naturally occurring, low-level depressions on these islands—especially on Salt Cay—that flooded at high tide. Sun and wind evaporated the water in these depressions, leaving salt behind. Bermudians improved and expanded these “ponds” in the late 1670s and salt collection by solar evaporation became an organized enterprise.

Initially, Bermudians occupied the Turks Islands on a part time basis—working the salt ponds during the hot summer months from March to November. By 1764 they occupied the Islands on a full-time basis. Salt collection began on South Caicos (Cockburn Harbour) about 1848. By 1908, Cockburn Harbour (a.k.a. East Harbour) had 400 acres devoted to salt ponds, Grand Turk had 230 acres and Salt Cay 120. 

The solar evaporation process to produce salt typically entailed moving seawater through four shallow ponds until the water was evaporated by the sun, leaving salt crystals behind. The process ended in a salt “pan”— so named due to its small size and shallow depth. This entire operation took 70 to 90 days. Salt was then ready to be raked. 

Salt production (part II)

From the salt pans, salt was transported by donkey carts or wheelbarrows to outdoor storage piles near the shore called “deposits” or to salt sheds. 

Normal rainfall on these islands was 24.5 to 26 inches a year, but when rainfall was significantly above normal, as it was from time to time, vast quantities of salt stored at outdoor deposits wasted away and salt forming in the ponds was ruined. For example, in 1904 and 1905 annual rainfall exceeded 40 inches. 

The best way to prevent salt loss from rain and hurricanes was to store it in a salt house or shed. Though expensive to build, by 1897 there were 8 such sheds on Grand Turk, 2 at Cockburn Harbour and 15 on Salt Cay. In total, these 25 salt sheds could store 542,000 bushels of salt.

This postcard pictures a steam-powered salt grinding facility on Grand Turk.

Josiah Frith and Jeremiah Murphy imported the first steam engine for grinding salt to South Caicos in 1874. The following year Grand Turk was also grinding salt using steam power. A single steam-powered salt grinding operation could process 10,000 bushels of salt a week. Ground salt, called fish or fishery salt, commanded a higher price than coarse salt because it was in great demand by the fishing industry in the New England States and Nova Scotia. For example, in 1906 coarse salt brought 6 cents a bushel while fishery salt sold for 7.5 cents a bushel. The Harriott brothers introduced an Aermotor (windmill) powered grinding machine to Salt Cay in 1894.

Coarse and fishery salt was shipped in bulk to the New England States and Nova Scotia. A few thousand barrels of salt were sent to Jamaica and the Dominican Republic each year. A barrel held about 3 bushels of ground salt and weighed 280 pounds. (A bushel of salt was equal to 1.13 American bushels.) A few barrels of ground salt for domestic use may have been shipped to the United States as well. 

Salt was bagged next to the salt storage deposits or storage sheds just before it was carried to lighters (small sailing craft) waiting at the beach for delivery to a freighter anchored off-shore.

A 1/2 bushel bag of salt weighed about 40 pounds. (A 1/2 bushel bag of ground or fishery salt weighed 45 pounds.) Men typically carried 5 bags of salt at a time, weighing 200 pounds or more, from the salt deposit to lighters at the beach. 

The operation of bagging salt, carrying the bags to a lighter and operating the lighter required about 22 people—10 men including the captain aboard the lighter, 6 women holding the bags for the 3 men who shoveled salt into the bags, 2 men to carry the bags to the lighter and a shore captain. 

This color postcard pictures men barreling salt. A barrel holds three bushels of salt.

A lighter could carry 400 to 500 bags of salt. Loading a 200-ton freighter usually required 4 lighters and took one day. Staging was set up on one side of the freighter being loaded with salt. Crew from the lighter passed bags of salt from man to man until it reached the deck of the vessel. The bags were then emptied into the freighter’s hold. An assistant Revenue Officer, posted onboard during the loading process, counted the number of empty bags to tally the royalties owed the government—the empty bags were then taken back to the salt deposit to be refilled. In 1909 the royalty was 70 cents per 100 bushels.

The number of bushels of salt exported varied from year to year depending on the weather, the political situation, and the price salt commanded. For example:  

Year    Tons Exported    Year    Tons Exported

1872     65,393                 1955     13,817

1894     77,203                 1960     31,717

1935     28,950                 1964       8,271

1939     50,256                  1970       2,650   (Salt Cay only)

1950       9,553

NOTE: There are approximately 28 bushels of course salt in a ton. A ton weighed 2,240 pounds.

Competition from lower cost producers having larger solar salt operations, mechanized processing techniques, and salt extracted from underground mines all contributed to the demise of the salt industry on the Turks & Caicos Islands.

A postcard showing men loading a lighter with bags of salt.

At the end of 1964 it was decided to end salt production on Grand Turk and Cockburn Harbour. The government subsidized salt production on Salt Cay for the next 10 years because there was no other form of employment on the island. Salt operations ceased on Salt Cay in 1975. 

For 300 years, salt was the primary industry on the Turks & Caicos Islands. When salt production ended in the 1960s, there was nothing to replace it. Hoping that tourism might replaced some of the jobs lost, the government opened the Turks Head Inn on Grand Turk in 1965. 

Prior to 1967, Providenciales was a quiet island made up of three small settlements with a total population of around 600 to 700 people. Tourism on “Provo” got its start in 1967 when a development company called Provident Ltd. leased 4,000 acres from the government for the construction of an airstrip and terminal building as well as roads and a hotel (Third Turtle Inn). However, tourism really took off on Providenciales in 1984 with the construction of Club Med Turkoise. Tourism continues to be the economic driver on the Turks & Caicos Islands today.

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