The Survey, Year II: It could use a little salt…

In our previous post regarding the initial evaluation of the progress made by State Geologist Newton Horace Winchell in the first year of the implementation of the Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey, we ended with the following question and prompt:

With added responsibility, greater authority, a higher budget, and a full season available to conduct fieldwork–a significant improvement to his “means at disposal”– how would the reconnaissance of the second year of the Geological and Natural History Survey of Minnesota be described? Hasty and incomplete, or concise and comprehensive?

Access The Second Annual Report for the year 1873 on the Digital Conservancy to find out.“

For those of you who didn’t read ahead, the work conducted during the second year of the Survey could be described as a concise and comprehensive effort at course-correction. Prior to the formal establishment of the state geological survey in 1872, the state legislature made investments to develop the potential economic output of Minnesota’s natural resources. One measure, a 1870 land grant to aid the Belle Spring Salt Company in the development of a salt spring, would later influence the work of the State Geologist, as well as have direct financial impact upon the progression of the Survey.

In 1857, when incorporated as a state, Minnesota was granted 72 sections of land (containing 12 salt springs and six sections of land adjacent to each) by the U.S. government. In 1870, a large tract of the designated “salt lands” was granted by the state legislature to the Belle Plaine Salt Company to aid in the development of a salt springs at the company’s site in Belle Plaine, Scott County, Minnesota. “An Act to aid the Belle Plaine Salt Company in the development of a Salt Springs at Belle Plaine,” outlined the stipulations of the grant. The land was to be awarded on the basis of the expenditures the company made for machinery, material, and labor in the development of the spring to produce salt for manufacture. The act stipulated the state legislature’s rights to the development and realization of the springs in Section 4, which stated that if the Belle Plaine Salt Company was successful in the production of brines, the state would impose “a duty of one cent per bushel of fifty-six pounds on all salt manufactured” to be collected by “whatever rules and regulations deemed necessary.”

To place added scrutiny to the arrangement, “An Act to aid the Belle Plaine Salt Company” was amended by the state legislature on March 4, 1871 in “An Act to further aid the Bell Plaine Salt Company…“. The further aid came with further stipulation. In order to obtain additional lands under the act, the company’s site and surrounding area would have to be evaluated by a qualified geologist, who after identifying and studying the geological composition of the vicinity of Belle Plaine, would produce a favorable report:

Provided, That before said company shall receive any benefits from the foregoing provisions or do any act or thing which shall entitle said company to receive the title to any of the lands therein mentioned, or to any lien thereon, or rights thereto, they shall employ a competent and practical geologist to be named and selected by the governor of the state, to make a thorough geological survey of the grounds where the works of the said company are located, and of the adjacent territory, and procure the opinion of such geologist as to the probabilities of a deposit of salt being ground in paying quantities in that neighborhood, and as to its definite location, if any. Such opinion shall be in writing and filed with the governor. If in the opinion of such geologist there is a deposit of salt at the point where said company are now boring for the same, or in that vicinity, which is accessible to mining in quantities that may be profitably worked, and that such deposit can be located with reasonable certainty. If such opinion shall not be procured, or be adverse, then, and in such case, that part of this act preceeding this proviso shall have no force or effect.

In the summer of 1871, Governor Horace A. Austin appointed Alexander Winchell, director of the Geological Survey of Michigan, to make an evaluation of the Belle Plaine site. Alexander Winchell surveyed the Belle Plaine well and surrounding area in June of that year and sent an official report to Governor Austin titled “Report of a geological survey of the vicinity of Belle Plaine, Scott County, Minn” on June 17, 1871. Alexander Winchell stated the purpose of his work in the report, which was to “form an opinion of the prospect of obtaining brine at Belle Plaine, or in its vicinity, of sufficient strength to sustain the manufacture of salt.” After several pages of a description of salt, brine, and the circumstances related to the composition and presence of saliferous geological formations, Alexander Winchell described the various samples that he identified at Belle Plaine and came to the following determination: “Although I am unable, for reasons already stated, to report favorably in reference to the prospect of obtaining brine at Belle Plaine, I entertain a decided conviction that it would be judicious to make a further expenditure at that place.” Alexander Winchell recommended that the well at Belle Plaine be drilled deeper – to the point that it reached the bottom of the layer of Potsdam sandstone. He outlined his reasons in the report:

The results are of public utility. Even if possessing no positive value, mere negative results are valuable, as indicating in what formations, and under what circumstances to expect nothing. Negative results, systematically and reliably attained, may save many ventures and expenditures hereafter… it is a public, more than a private interest, which is concerned in exploring this sand stone; and it would be good public policy if the State would provide for the expense. This locality is the proper one for the experiment, since by far the most expensive portion of the undertaking has now been completed, in sinking a substantial six-inch pipe through the boulder drift two hundred feet, to the surface of the friable sand rock.

According to the Second Annual Report of the Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey, the Belle Plaine well was drilled to a greater depth in 1872 following Alexander Winchell’s recommendation. In July of 1872, samples of soil and rock procured from drillings between the depths of 242 to 411 feet were prepared and sent to Alexander Winchell to be examined. In a letter to Governor Horace Austin dated August 12, 1872, Alexander Winchell relayed that he “made a pretty thorough physical examination of the specimens and reviewed all that has been published on the question of their identification and their relationship to the geology of Belle Plaine.” Following a description of the specimens, classifications and observations, Alexander Winchell reported to the governor, “there is no hope, either of salt or a well of fresh water, by boring deeper, and not another dollar ought to be expended in this hope.” He concluded, “The fault committed here as in so many other cases, was an attempt to proceed independently of geological knowledge in the beginning, and to call for scientific aid, not so much to guide an important enterprise, as to help it out of difficulty.

Alexander Winchell’s letter to Governor Austin, which included the second assessment of the Belle Plaine well, came just one month after Alexander’s younger brother, Newton Horace Winchell, appeared in front of the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents on July 15 1872 and accepted the assignment of implementing the Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey as the State Geologist for Minnesota.

Following the general reconnaissance that Newton Winchell made in his first year of the Minnesota survey, his second year at the helm would begin by following up on his older brother Alexander’s observations of the Belle Plaine well. In February of 1873, Governor Austin ordered Newton Winchell to make an assessment of the well, which by then had reached a depth of 700 feet. After examination, Newton Winchell submitted a report to the governor that corroborated his brother’s earlier conclusions, “I have no hesitation in saying that in the rocks of that age there is almost a certainty that no salt would be obtained, and that no lower formation would offer better inducement to sink the well deeper.

So what would become of the Belle Plaine Salt Company? Apparently, the opinions of the brother geologists proved to be adverse towards the presence of salt in the geological structure at Belle Plaine, casting “An act to aid the Belle Plaine Salt Company” to have “no force or effect.” One month after Newton Winchell’s conclusion was turned over to the governor, on March 10, 1873, the state legislature passed “An act to aid the Geological and Natural History Survey of the State…,” an amendment to the original March 1, 1872 act that created the Survey. Section 1 reveals the effect of the amendment:

“Section 1. The state lands known as “state salt lands,” donated by the general government to aid in the development of the brines in the state of Minnesota, shall be transferred to the custody and control of the board of regents of the [U]niversity of Minnesota. By said board of regents these lands may be sold in such manner, or in such amounts, consistent with the laws of the state of Minnesota, as they may see fit, the proceeds thereof being held in trust by them, and only disbursed in accordance with the law ordering a geological and natural history survey of the state.”

In addition to an annual appropriation of $2000, proceeds from the sale of the salt lands were granted to the Survey, thus making amends for previous ill-informed geological endeavors by providing a base of support to fund further explorations of the natural resources of the state.

The 1873 act to aid the Survey also came with a stipulation that ultimately guided how Newton Winchell would spend the remainder of his second year of Survey work:

“Sec. 3. The board of regents of the [U]niversity of Minnesota, shall cause the immediate survey and investigation of the peat deposits of the state of Minnesota, accompanied by such tests and chemical examination as may be necessary to show their economical value, and their usefulness for the purposes of common fuel, a full report thereon to be presented to the legislature as soon as practicable.”

Stay tuned for part 2 of The Survey – Year II, where Winchell, by then well-seasoned in his Survey experience, launched a full investigation on the presence of peat in Minnesota.