By Sylva Valentino Palmer
You’ve probably heard the expression that someone is “the salt of the earth,” but most of us have probably never really thought about what it means. It originated from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and over the years has taken on a variety of connotations in reference to one’s character. It may refer to one who is unpretentious, honest, kind or hard-working. In fact, valued workers are often referred to as “worth their salt,” since Roman soldiers were paid partly in salt, or “salarium,” leading to the modern word “salary.” Salt serves us daily in a number of ways. It is a seasoning, a preservative, a disinfectant, and a melting agent. It is the only rock consumed by humans and necessary to their diet.
My fascination with salt is very personal, and has a connection to both my family and to my community. I live within eight miles of the largest salt- producing mines in the United States, and the second largest in the world. The salt is mined at the American Rock Salt Company where 19,000 tons of the mineral is extracted daily, and an estimated 3.5 million tons annually. It is not the kind you’ll find in your kitchen salt shaker; it is a variety known as halite. This type of salt is spread over icy winter roads throughout 12 states along the eastern seaboard, including New York and Pennsylvania, to keep traffic flowing during what would otherwise be considered hazardous driving conditions.
Salt is a valuable commodity in Livingston County, which is located in western New York state. The American Rock Salt mine is about 30 miles south of Rochester, NY, and aproximately three miles from the State University of New York at Geneseo campus.
Salt mining is a major source of income for a great number of people living in this area, and has been for more than 100 years. Whether directly through employment at the mine itself, or indirectly through agencies dependent on salt production, such as the Genesee and Wyom- ing Railroad, you would be hard pressed to find someone here who isn’t related to, or an acquaintance of, an employee dependent on the salt mine for income.
My grandfather worked for the Sterling Salt Company, located just a few miles from where the newest mine was built in 1997. Sylvester Valentino, an Italian immigrant, worked for the Sterling Salt Company in the tiny hamlet of Cuylerville, which is where I grew up. That mine was in operation from 1906 until 1930. At that time, salt was hauled along tracks in cars pulled by mules, and canaries were kept as a way of detecting lethal methane gas in the mine. If the canary died, it was time to evacuate the miners. The work was backbreaking manual labor and the equipment used were hand tools such as picks, shovels and sledge hammers.
My father was the only one of eight children to follow his father into the mining business. He was hired by the International Salt Company in Retsof, NY, which is located only about three miles from where his father had been employed. That mine operated from 1885 until 1994, when a collapse occurred that was so horrific it ultimately caused all operations to cease.
By then the mine had changed its name to Akzo Nobel after a merger with Diamond Crystal in 1988. Much had changed since my grandfather‘s time. Modern equipment had replaced the mules. Better working conditions, better pay and benefits made it one of the most lucrative vocations in the Genesee Valley.
My father didn’t work with mules, which by then were a thing of the past. Instead he worked as a motorman on the train that transported the salt from “rooms” carved out by huge cutters more than 1,000 feet below, to the hoist which carried the salt to the surface for shipment. He worked for the company for 32 years, and was able to support and educate four children in the process. It wasn’t unusual for him to work for weeks on end from pre-dawn to dusk without a day off; never seeing the light of day.
In 1994, tragedy struck the Akzo Nobel mine. It was suspected that a new method of mining, which left smaller amounts of salt columns, or pillars, in place to hold up the ceilings of the rooms failed, and the mine literally collapsed, allowing a large aquifer to flood it and putting a halt to salt production. The resulting tremor was felt throughout the valley and registered 3.6 on the Richter scale.
Because so many people in the area depend on salt mining for their livelihood, the collapse of Akzo Nobel was devastating, and the cause of much concern and apprehension about what the future would bring for them. This was a potential economic disaster whose impact would be felt not only by the mine employees, but by those working for the G & W Railroad and for other local businesses, such as independent truckers, hardware stores, restaurants and gas stations.
Had it not been for the determination and foresight of Joe Bucci, his family, friends and associates, life might have been very different for the people of the Genesee Valley. Joe, a lifelong resident, son and grandson of miners, a history teacher at the local high school and owner of a real estate business, was determined that, not only would the rich heritage of mining salt be preserved, but his hometown would not become a depressed area failing to provide a means of support for the many families living here. Thus, the fight began for the rights to build a new mine. It took five years of hard work, a great deal of money and the cooperation of state officials to make Joe’s dream come true, but in 1999, American Rock Salt opened at Hampton Corners in Groveland, NY, only 10 miles from the disabled mine.
It was the first new salt mine to be built in the United States in 40 years, and it has provided a means to carry on the tradition of mining salt in this community. It was a win-win situation. Many of the 300 workers hired were those returning to do the jobs they had done before the closing of Akzo, and having a skilled workforce already in place was a huge asset to American Rock Salt since less time was needed to train new employees and get the operation up and running.
As in the days of my forefathers, the miners still begin and end their shifts by riding the “cage,” a huge elevator, which can now hold up to 60 workers at a time. They descend into the 1,283 foot shaft in about 90 seconds, where the temperature remains constant within a few degrees at about 60 degrees Fahrenheit all year long. Workers must wear lights attached to their hard-hats to allow them to find their way through the maze of underground catacombs. This is the only illumination available, and without it one could easily become lost in the miles of pitch black corridors far below the surface of the earth.
In the winter months, workers still put in long hours and seldom see daylight; but today, mining is very different than it was for either my grandfather or my father. Much of the work is done by huge pieces of equipment used to undercut the salt, crush it, load it and transport it above ground. These machines are taken down into the minein pieces, assembled and then maintained by skilled mechanics in a self-sufficient repair shop. In today’s computer-driven society, that heavy mining equipment, as well as a modern conveyor system, are controlled by state-of-the-art computer programs that can detect and pinpoint problems immediately, thus avoiding costly lapses in production. The room-and- pillar method of mining continues to be practiced as it was in the past, but today instead of mining 70 percent of the salt from a room, only 60 percent is taken. Each day, holes are drilled for explosives, and blasting is done each night to loosen the salt, leaving pillars that are 95 feet high by 95 feet wide to support the land above. Then the salt is crushed, screened and taken by conveyor to the surface stockpile to be bagged or shipped in bulk by truck or rail car.
It is estimated that the 225 million tons of salt still available within the mine will keep American Rock Salt in business for another 75 years. That makes citizens of this community very optimistic about the future.