Located on the northeastern shore of Syracuse’s Onondaga Lake, far from any ocean, you’ll find the Salt Museum.
The Salt Museum tells the story of Syracuse’s once prominent salt industry. In fact, the industry was so important to the city that it’s still known today as “The Salt City”.
Wanting to learn about this interesting history, I made my way to this free museum, which can be found in Onondaga Lake Park in Liverpool, just a few minutes from the city proper. This park is popular in the summertime for outdoor recreation and is the home of Lights on the Lake during the holiday season.
The Salt Museum is located in a building constructed by the Civil Conservation Corps in the 1930s, likely in large part from the wood used in old salt factories. It is full of salt-producing equipment and dioramas to tell the interesting history of Onondaga Salt.
Onondaga Salt was known to the local Native Americans for many years prior to its discovery by a Jesuit priest in 1654. The local tribes thought it was foul water created by the gods and didn’t use it regularly. However, upon trying it, the priest instantly recognized it as a salt spring.
Commercialization of the salt springs at Onondaga Lake started in 1774 and would continue for nearly 140 years. At its peak in 1862, 3,000 people were employed in the salt industry here, many of whom were given exemptions from military service due to their work in the industry.
The salt produced on the shores of Onondaga Lake was not mined like salt typically is (such as nearby around several of the Finger Lakes). Instead, it was evaporated from water collected from the springs.
This means that the process on display in Syracuse’s Salt Museum is likely different than anything else you have seen regarding salt production.
The museum’s displays are set up in a clockwise direction around one large room. They tell the story of the region’s salt from its uses by Native Americans through to the early 20th century.
The biggest display area highlights the process of evaporating the water to extract the salt. This was done through a variety of methods, with much of the museum’s space being taken up by a diorama highlighting the boiling kettles that were used in the process.
These kettles were also responsible for the creation of Syracuse’s signature dish: salt potatoes. That’s because Irish workers in these salt factories would come to work with a bag of potatoes and cook them in the salty kettles to make their lunches.
Today, you can still get salt potatoes in many restaurants in the Syracuse area.
The museum’s displays continue to highlight the various methods and innovations used over the years in the processing of Onondaga Salt. Having never given much thought to how salt was produced or even into how vital salt was in the past, I found these displays to be quite interesting.
There was even a section about the coopering industry in Syracuse. Obviously, barrels were important for the transportation of salt in the 19th century, and this was one of many industries in the area that both rose and fell in the region with the salt industry.
For those that have a lot of interest in the subject, the Salt Museum has a TV that rotates through various videos about the salt industry and its impact on Syracuse. Unfortunately, these videos are also quite long, so I wasn’t able to take the time to watch one for more than a few minutes.
Overall, the Salt Museum in Onondaga Lake Park is a really interesting spot where you can learn both about a unique industry and about the history of Syracuse. While I wouldn’t count it among the must-visit museums in the Finger Lakes, it’s definitely a fascinating spot to visit if you enjoy history or simply want to take a quick look around (since it is free).
The Salt Museum
Hours: Thursday-Sunday: 10a-4p
Address: 106 Lake Drive