Saltdale, California from 1946-1960 (Images and words)



Every so often old photographs and stories fall into my lap by those that were there to live out the history that I write about on these pages. Shirley Terral was a resident of Saltdale when she was a child, experiencing first hand the trials of growing up in a mining camp. The photographs and stories below are her memories and experiences. Enjoy this look rare look at Saltdale from when it was once an active salt mine. For more information on Saltdale.


Saltdale’s salt mill and salt crusher shed. Several times each day the salt product was transported in eight dumpable metal ore cars along a narrow gauge rail system. The cars were pulled by a Donkey engine about a mile from the lake vats to the mill crusher (the cars would probably hold 800-1,000 lbs). The coarsely crushed salt then began its journey via conveyer belt to the mill’s furnace. When dry the salt was moved into two and three-story holding bins, where it waited to go (again via conveyor belt) into 80 lb burlap bags. The bags were filled by crewmen, piled onto hand trucks and stacked by rows on the mill’s holding area. Lastly, the product was loaded onto commercial trucks or Southern Pacific boxcars destined for the Los Angeles area for distribution and sale. This was labor-intensive, hands-on-operation. It was man killing work performed sometimes in temperatures reaching 115 degrees.


From left to right: Mill office where crew members clocked-in for the shifts. Open area held crew member hard hats, their personal water cups and drinking water supply (unrefrigerated). Crew went home for a half and hour lunch break. Structures seen in the distance on far right side of photograph was a storage warehouse where bales of burlap bags and other tools were kept.


Company dump truck with machine shop in background. The machine shop had lots of belt-driven machine tools that probably would have qualified for museum status…circa 1920’s or earlier. Old, but my father managed to keep them operational. He was an innovative and resourceful man. In the foreground you can can the bottom of a flatbed care used to transport narrow gauge rail to/from the lake bed work site.


Maurice R. Gilleland (Gillie), my dad, posing with two of the donkey engines used to pull salt cars. The structure on the left was the gas station.


One of the company houses that were furnished to employees. I say “houses” advisedly, as it is sometimes said that you could throw a cat through them. They had running water, electricity, and sometimes an oil heater. None of them had a bathroom, and they were not furnished with evaporative coolers. I have NO fond memories of either the Western Salt Company or the Long Beach Salt Company and their owners. There may have been other companies involved during my period of reference (1948-1960). I just remember more than one company was referred to as the owners. The only owner that I met was Retired Admiral, L.H. Hunt of La Jolla, CA. He gave my father a picture of himself posing with a huge blue marlin that he had caught.


Southern Pacific message station. Saltdale had an official U.S. Postal Station until about 1948. The Southern Pacific ran a daily schedule and would pick up and deliver the US Mail to Cantil and the Saltdale Post Offices. They would also deliver and pick-up product-loaded boxcars as needed. They would also deliver tank cars of fresh water for drinking and household use.


Salt product (squares of salt) shown sitting on edge to drain excess water in one of the evaporative VATS. The largest VAT was referred to as the 40-acre VAT. I don’t recall exactly how many VATS there were, probably 3 or 4.


Salt product after having been cut into squares in preparation of handling. The product was sawed into manageable squares with a two-wheel hand-pushed vertical circular saw. Using a manual pick workers could then pry the salt squares loose from the vat bed. The squares were stood on their edges to allow unevaporated water to drain, then loaded by hand aboard the dumps cars for the trip to salt crusher / mill.


Photos above show salty water being moved from Kane Dry Lake to Salt Vats where natural sun/climate evaporation took place. The water in the VATS would be approximately 30-inches deep and would require about 6 months for the evaporation process to be accomplished.

In early years natural rainwater accumulating in Kane Dry Lake was depended upon for the water source. Beginning about 1948-49 the rain did not fall, and the drought began, closing the Saltdale operation. The company kept my father employed as caretaker. After several months of nothing to do except maintenance and repairs around the facility he began to tinker with an heirloom, cable-operated well drilling rig in the machine shop boneyard. The company allowed him a few dollars to buy drilling pipe and supplies. They probably thought him crazy at best. But drill a shallow well he did, and got salt water.

The speculation well that he drilled near the salt mill did prove that saltwater was available. He next had to convince the company to let him drill a real well near the salt vats, a location that would be commercially useful. The first well in that location produced more than salt water, it also contained chlorine gas.

From the water in the well he was able to fill the 40-acre VAT. The water made salt, forty acres of salt, the salt water evaporated and left salt with lumps the size of footballs.

Saltdale was in business again, at least for another 10-15 years, until the EPA got involved.


Cecilia Napolis, John L. Gilleland, and Shirley A. Gilleland. Photo taken in Saltdale, CA – 1947. ¬†Cecilia, who we called “Sheila” because we did not understand the correct pronunciation of her Mexican name. “Sheila,” her brother Joseph (Gonzal0), her mother Martha and her dad, Joe Napolis were our friends from 1947 on.


My and my baby brother, Johnny. Photo was taken in the schoolyard of Garlock Elementary School, Saltdale, CA – 1947.


My and my brother, Johnny. We are standing beside the first house we lived in, in Saltdale. The Napolis family lived just across the road.


Me showing off my Christmas bike. In the background you can see the salt mill, and the neighbors garage.


Hugh C. Topp had been the superintendent of the salt mill for a time in the late 1930s. When we arrived in 1946 he was retired, but served as the acting Postmaster in Saltdale. The post office consisted of about 30 mailboxes set up in a room behind the salt companies office. Mr. Topp lived in the company superintendent’s house with Margaret Topp, his sister. She lived there with him until he died in 1949. In later years my family occupied the same house until 1960.


Hugh C. and Margaret Topp at the train station in Mojave, CA.


Saltdale, California – Garlock Elementary School – 1947-1948

Back row: Amy GOmez, Joseph Napolis, Jesse Withnell, Edward Spiegel, Marie Smith (Class mother).

Front row: Neil Smith, Donna Hawley, unknown, Irene Gomez, Cecilia Napolis, Margaret Gomez, Shirley Gilleland, Dorothy Hawley, unknown, and Gerald Withnell.

Note: Little girl in middle front row is Marie Smith’s baby daughter. School picture taken at Randsburg, American Legion Building.

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.