White Gold: Alabama Salt

The salt of the earth is as good as gold in Southwest Alabama.

White Gold: Alabama Salt, a documentary originally broadcast on Alabama Public Television in 2001, tells the remarkable story of this essential mineral found in the state. The documentary was produced by Max Shores as part of the weekly series, The Alabama Experience.

Salt lies miles under the earth’s surface in several states bordering the Gulf of Mexico.  What makes Southwest Alabama unique is that the salt has risen close to the surface there.

In Clarke and Washington Counties, water rising along a large fault brings salt up to the surface.  Native Americans and early settlers collected brine water there that they evaporated to collect salt crystals.

The first large-scale efforts to gather salt in Clarke and Washington Counties began in the Civil War when a naval blockade interrupted the state’s supply of overseas salt. In an era before refrigeration, salt was the most effective preservative available. During the war as many as 6,000 people–most of them slaves–were busy at the salt works. Many of these laborers were cutting trees to fuel the fires of large furnaces used to boil the brine water.

The Confederate Salt Works spanned miles along the Jackson Fault and were clustered into what were called the Upper, Central, and Lower Salt Works. “White Gold: Alabama Salt” shows that the mineral was so vital to the people of Alabama that the state formed a commission to oversee and regulate the operation of these salt works. Because of the many slaves who worked at these sites, the commission’s records are a valuable resource today for African-Americans who are researching their ancestors.

Geologists looking for oil found salt instead in the Southern Washington County town of McIntosh just after World War II.  They discovered that salt had risen close to the surface in a formation called a salt dome.

Industries are taking advantage of this huge underground salt deposit. Though a process called solution mining, water is pumped into the McIntosh Salt Dome. When the liquid comes to the surface it is brine. The salty water is reduced to three chemicals that have many industrial applications.  Chlorine is used in the manufacture of vinyl, plastics, and paint; caustic soda is used to make glass, paper, and cloth; and hydrogen is used as a rocket fuel.

What’s more, the salt dome is used as a huge storage facility by the industries. Natural gas is held in the salt dome, as is compressed air, which is used for power generation.

White Gold: Alabama Salt visits the remains of historical salt works in Southwest Alabama and explains how modern industries make use of this vital mineral.

The documentary was produced by the University of Alabama Center for Public Television and Radio.