salt makingIn the first years of the colony, salt was a valuable import and essential for preserving meat. Salt-making efforts began as early as 1790 and involved boiling down sea water.  Around 49 tons of sea water were required to produce one ton of salt. Around 1808 the Blaxland brothers began operating a salt works using solar evaporation on eight acres of swampland at their property Newington, on the Parramatta River.

In his paper Salt Making in New South Wales from 1788 to 1900 Brian Rogers traces early developments in salt making.  Salt making, most likely using large iron pots heated over wood fires, was in operation at Bennelong Point by 1890. Large salt pans were brought from England in 1804 and installed at Newcastle and Rose Bay, the latter continuing in operation until about 1890. They relied on a plentiful supply of fuel, which could be wood, coal or, in other locations, oil. In these early days, the local product sold for as much as 6 pence a pound; imported salt was sold by the Commissary for tuppence to tuppence halfpenny a pound, but often resold for  up to two shillings per lb.

1920 salt lake harvest

Harvesting salt c. 1920 (Image: State Library of Victoria)

The first salt making operation using solar evaporation was that of the Blaxland Brothers. It continued into the 1880s. However, by the 1840s, the NSW product was facing competition from salt scraped from the surface of lakes on Kangaroo Island. As early as 1868, the Adelaide Salt Company was incorporated with an office at the Queen’s Wharf in Port Adelaide and many operations began to harvest salt from lakes on the Yorke Peninsula. The industry expanded and for many years South Australia produced most of Australia’s salt, much of which was exported.

The first large-scale operation to produce salt by solar evaporation of sea water was founded by Richard Cheetham in 1888 in Geelong, Victoria, Australia.  After initial clearing of land, production commenced in 1894. Several operations in South Australia adopted this method in the early 20th century.

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Salt from Pink Lake, Dimboola

Today, most Australian salt is produced in the Pilbara Region of Western Australia by Dampier Salt, owned by Rio Tinto.  They have three operations located at Dampier, Port Hedland and Lake MacLeod. The Dampier site was set up in 1967. Seawater (at Dampier and Port Hedland) or naturally occurring underground brines (at Lake MacLeod) are exposed to the evaporative power of the sun and the wind to crystallise pure sodium chloride salt in a series of ponds called crystallisers.

Gourmet salts such as the Mount Zero product from the Wimmera region of Victoria and Murray River salt from the Riverland are a very small portion of the market. Most salt is not food grade and is used in the chemical industry.