Now part of a 15,100-acre restoration project, the salt ponds of the southern San Francisco Bay have a long history of industrial use and management. Early developers of these lands in the late 1800s modified the marshy tidal margin of the bay to be productive and profitable; wetlands were not valued for their own sake or for ecological values, but were considered wastelands until they could be “improved” for human utilization. The land barons behind what became the Leslie Salt Company created an elaborate landscape of dikes and ponds, but producing solar salt was considered an interim use, while the owners aimed for further, more lucrative possibilities: first planning a heavily industrialized manufacturing and distribution center, and later considering filling the marshlands to create residential developments. Ironically the vision of a filled-in Bay helped to trigger a wave of environmentalism in the 1960s and ‘70s, resulting first in the creation of a wildlife refuge and later this ambitious restoration project, circling back toward the tidal marshes’ earlier form and function. Examining their history helps us to see not only the potential conservation value of lands previously used for industrial purposes, but also to help us understand that we can live side by side with conservation lands, that their ecological or wildness values are not necessarily diminished by human presence or past.
Many thanks to Stoel Rives LLP, for allowing our use of their case archives, located at Three Embarcadero Center, Suite 1120, San Francisco, CA, 94111. We are deeply grateful for having been granted access to these files as part of working on the South Bay Salt Ponds Restoration Project, which is managed jointly by the California Coastal Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the California Department of Fish and Game. We have the project management team's permission to submit this modified version of an earlier Cultural Resources Assessment Strategy Memo, written on behalf of EDAW, Inc. in 2005, for publication as an article, as a way of bringing the information to a broader public audience.
Harold Gilliam, San Francisco Bay (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1957), 164.
Sally K. Fairfax, Lauren Gwin, Mary Ann King, Leigh Raymond, and Laura A. Watt, Buying Nature: The Limits of Land Acquisition as a Conservation Strategy, 1780–2003 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005).
Deborah E. Popper and Frank J. Popper, “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust,” Planning 53 (December, 1987): 12–18.
For instance, see Philip Garone's The Fall and Rise of the Wetlands of California's Great Central Valley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011) for an excellent discussion of the changing values of wetlands.
William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, William Cronon, ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995).
John S. Sandoval, Mt. Eden: Cradle of the Salt Industry in California (Hayward, CA: Mt. Eden Historical Publishers, 1988), 4–6.
Sandoval, Mt. Eden, 20, quoting Adolph Oliver.
William E. Ver Planck, Salt in California (San Francisco: Division of Mines Bulletin 175, 1958), 107.
E. W. Parker, Salt (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Geological Survey Annual Report, part 5, volume 2, 1897), 1311.
Ver Planck, Salt in California, 107; the four were Union Pacific, Carmen Island, Oliver Salt, and American Salt Company.
William Cronon, “Landscapes of Scarcity and Abundance,” in Oxford History of the West, Clyde Milner, Carol O'Connor, and Martha Sandweiss, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
Norris Hundley, Jr., The Great Thirst: Californians and Water 1770s–1990s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 80.
See Marsden Manson, “The Swamp and Marsh Lands of California,” Transactions of the Technical Society of the Pacific Coast, November 26, 1888; also see “Practical utilization of marsh lands in San Francisco Bay,” report by Otto Von Geldern, C.E., for the Dumbarton Land & Improvement Company, 1913, 6–7; Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.2-6/4, San Francisco.
Matthew Morse Booker, Down by the Bay: San Francisco's History Between the Tides (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 82, citing the California Legislature Joint Committee on Public and State Lands, “Report to the Joint Committee to Inquire into and Report Upon the Condition of Public and State Lands Lying Within the Limits of the State,” (1872).
Garone, The Fall and Rise of the Wetlands of California's Great Central Valley, 62–64.
Claire Lopez, Reclamation and Development: the Marsh and Overflowed Lands of the South San Francisco Bay, report for the Leslie Salt Company, 1971, 4; Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.7/1, San Francisco.
Its stated purpose was “to acquire, hold and own lands in the state of California by purchase, lease, bond, or otherwise, and to cultivate, reclaim, fill, drain, ditch, and otherwise improve same.” The company's charter also allowed it to operate railways for transportation of passengers and freight. Articles of Incorporation, Dumbarton Land & Improvement Company, September 21, 1891; Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.2/1, San Francisco.
A 1920 letter describes DL&IC's land as having been originally patented as swamp and overflowed land in 1870, although it does not describe who held that first patent; letter to Morton Salt Co., Chicago, January 3, 1920; Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.2/20, San Francisco. And, in 1890, the year before DL&IC incorporated, the River, Harbor and Canal Dredging and Land Company of San Francisco proposed to dredge, widen, and straighten the Alviso slough to allow for more deep-water shipping there. A newspaper article described this company as “composed of some of the most prominent citizens of San Francisco. Furthermore—that they had absolute title to nearly 20,000 acres of marshland (about 12,000 acres being in Santa Clara County), controlling more than twenty miles of waterfront on the San Francisco Bay.” These holdings appear to be the same as DL&IC's, hence the River, Harbor and Canal Dredging and Land Company was likely an earlier incarnation of the same landowners. Their proposal to dredge Alviso slough was approved by the San Jose Board of Trade, but the dredging equipment failed to function properly, and the project stalled out. The inventor of the dredging equipment, Albert Boschke, also turns up frequently in August Schilling's subsequent plans for industrializing the South Bay. Clipping from the Redwood City Times and Gazette, January 11, 1890, Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.1–1/4; Package of materials sent by A. Schilling to Herbert Hoover at Stanford University, September 26, 1919, Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.13–1, San Francisco.
Letter from Dumbarton Land & Improvement Company to U.S. Senator Honorable J.P. Jones, February 19, 1894; Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.2/2, San Francisco. At least one parcel, the area including Dumbarton Point, had been acquired from Alfred Davis, co-owner of the South Pacific Coast Railroad, which ran through DL&IC property on its way to Alviso, San Jose, and Santa Cruz. Davis' partner in the SPCRR was Jim Fair, who made his fortune with the Comstock Lode discovery. Davis owned Dumbarton Point as of 1875, and likely was the original claimant under the Arkansas Act; it is unclear when or why he sold to Schilling and/or DL&IC. See Bruce Macgregor and Richard Truesdale, South Pacific Coast: A Centennial (Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishers, 1982), 48. Several documents in the Stoel Rives archive refer to DL&IC as owning land during the 1880s; it can only be presumed that these refer to holdings acquired prior to incorporation. Further research is needed to definitively trace these holdings back to their original owners.
Ver Planck, Salt in California, 109; their San Francisco plant was destroyed by fire after the 1906 earthquake, but was rebuilt and reopened in January 1907. The company was acquired by McCormick in 1947.
Schilling later became one of the Directors, along with Volkmann, on June 25, 1907.
The 1894 letter to Senator Jones describes reclaimed marshland in nearby San Pablo and Suisun Bays as providing “the very best pasturage,” and that “when protected from the overflow of tide waters, the land soon becomes, without much care or labor, meadow land yielding at all times luxuriant crops of green feed and with little cultivation, almost phenomenal crops of cereals, vegetables, and fruits.” Letter from Dumbarton Land & Improvement Company to U.S. Senator Honorable J. P. Jones, February 19, 1894; Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.2/2, San Francisco.
The southern part of San Francisco Bay is mostly very shallow, only a few feet deep, but a lone deep-water channel extends down to just past Dumbarton Point.
“History of the Alviso Neighborhood,” on the Neighborhoods of San Jose website, http://www.historysanjose.org/neighborhoods/alviso/index.html, accessed June 13, 2013.
Oddly, neither of the slough crossings involved an actual drawbridge; both were equipped with swing bridges instead.
See O. L. “Monty” Dewey, Drawbridge, California: A Hand-Me-Down History (Fremont, CA: San Francisco Bay Wildlife Society, 1989).
The name Leslie apparently came from an uncle in the Whitney family; Mitch Postel, “More Than a Grain: The History of the Salt Industry in San Mateo County,” San Mateo County Historical Association, 1977. Stauffer Chemical Co. had acquired two of the three independent salt works in the West Bay, the West Shore Salt Company and Redwood City Salt Company; salt is a key ingredient in many industrial-scale chemical operations, including production of bleach, chlorine, and plastics. Detail on the products of the bay's chemical industry can be read in Booker, Down by the Bay, 159–162. The exact relationship of Schilling, Whitney, and Stauffer Chemical seems to shift over the years, as correspondence in 1909 suggests that Whitney had trouble “carrying” his third interest and was bought out by Schilling. See letter from Stauffer Chemical Co. to Schilling & Co., Feb 19, 1909 (dictated by A. Schilling?); Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.2/8, San Francisco. There is also reference to a Coast Investment Company, which seems to be another business co-owned by at least some of the DL&IC partners, which handled some of the financial dealings between the three companies. See “Stock Transactions, Land Acquisition, 1907–1909,” Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.2-8, San Francisco.
Marsden Manson CE, “Report to the President and Board of Directors of the Dumbarton Land & Improvement Co.,” August 23, 1905; Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.2/22, San Francisco. Note also included as an appendix in Lopez, Reclamation and Development.
Page 6 of Manson's report notes “Drawbridge” station, with houses, houseboats, hotel, and artesian well, suitable for a resort. “Term leases are advised rather than sales.”
Lopez, Reclamation and Development, 9. In early 1908, Whitney wrote to Schilling stating that, “we now have something over 4,000 acres of land in Santa Clara County under levee, only 500 of which are rented.” File SFB 4.2-1/15, letter from Whitney to Schilling dated March, 12, 1908. Whitney wanted to find tenants to run cattle on the land for pasturage, as well as flooding 2,000 acres north of Dumbarton Point to get the evaporation process started for salt making. He worried that “we are getting started on new ventures with so many old ones still incomplete…”
Undated letter from 1907, no addressee, signed by R. W. Lohman for A. Schilling & Bruning, Bremen (Germany); Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.2/9, San Francisco.
Unsigned letter to Mrs. E. O. Oliver, dated May 31, 1907; the representative was most likely Whitney. Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.2/9, San Francisco.
For instance, today's familiar cylinder-shaped container for salt was a Leslie innovation; Postel, “More Than a Grain,” 17.
Unsigned letter to Mrs. E. O. Oliver, dated May 31, 1907; Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.2/9, San Francisco.
California Salt Company and Continental Salt and Chemical Company were both successful at buying out smaller operators; in 1924, they in turn merged with Leslie to form the Leslie-California Salt Company. Leslie-California then acquired Turk Island Salt Company in 1927. Oliver Salt Company had similarly been absorbing neighboring salt producers through the 1910s, but was itself merged with Leslie-California in 1931. Not only are the corporate relationships between salt companies confusing, but so too are the relationships between salt and several other bayside industries, namely oysters, harbor development, and cement-making companies, which mined oyster shells out of the bay to make cement. The archive contains an unsigned agreement, dated June 24, 1916, proposing to merge the Redwood City Harbor Company (Schilling and de Guigne were both on the Board of Directors, along with the company's president George Merrill), Morgan Oyster Company, and Leslie Salt Company, and includes a map showing Morgan's lands around Redwood City; but according to an article by Mitch Postel, Morgan sold to Pacific-Portland Cement in 1923; Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.19/2, San Francisco; and Mitch Postel, “A Lost Resource: Shellfish in San Francisco Bay,” California History, March 1988. The Redwood City Harbor Company had built levees around all of their property by July 1929; the company was dissolved in July 1945 and all its assets transferred to Leslie Salt, which was the sole stockholder; Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.23, San Francisco. For more on the complex relationships of these tidelands industries, see Booker, Down by the Bay.
Note that the incorporation date for Arden is from Ver Planck; Claire Lopez describes Arden Salt Co. as originating in “the early 1900s” and operating on lands leased from DL&IC. A third version comes from Postel, who describes Schilling as converting his “marshland properties in the east bay from private game reserves to salt ponds,” citing a telephone interview with Schilling's grandson, who claimed that “duck hunting was the original attraction to the east bay marshlands that became the Arden Company.” Further research in archives might reveal more about the exact history of the company's origins.
This parcel was purchased in 1924 by the Continental Salt and Chemical Co. from the Spring Valley Water Company. According to Ver Planck, the same backing interests owned both Continental and Alviso Salt, hence the property must have been transferred to Alviso ownership before Continental merged with Leslie. See Ver Planck, Salt in California, 111; also two historic maps at the Bancroft Library show ponds in place west of Alviso extending across to Mayfield Slough in the 1920s: a 1921 map shows lands under contract of sale from Spring Valley Water Co. to the Continental Salt & Chemical Co.; on the 1929 map, the same lands are owned by Alviso Salt Co. It is not clear from the historical records why Schilling chose to establish a separate company to operate these DL&IC-owned lands, rather than manage them under the Leslie corporate structure.
Oddly, on January 3, 1920, Schilling wrote to the Morton Salt Company stating that the DL&IC had “decided to dispose of our land interests about the bay of San Francisco,” inquiring whether Morton would like to acquire them. Morton, based in Chicago, responded five days later, saying that “our business lies chiefly east of the Rocky Mountains, and we would not, at this time, consider extending our interests to California.” There are no other indications of DL&IC attempting to sell off any of their holdings. Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.2/20, San Francisco.
Lopez, Reclamation and Development, 6, emphasis added. It is interesting that a 1913 report commissioned by DL&IC on their holdings, written by consulting engineer Otto Von Geldern, still advocated agriculture, specifically high-grade dairies, as the most productive and profitable use of the land; he suggested that salt or oysters were secondary uses that would not pay as well as agriculture. “If the marsh is not cultivable, there is no need of levee building or of any other improvements, because no one will be attracted to it and no one will live there…” Von Geldern, “Practical utilization of marsh lands in San Francisco Bay,” Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.2-6/4, San Francisco.
“Dumbarton Land: An outline containing what are believed to be the principal points of consideration in determining the true position of the large area of marsh land in relation to the future industrial development of the region surrounding the southern arm of the San Francisco Bay”; the report has no listed author; Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.2/21, San Francisco.
Dumbarton Land & Improvement Company Decree of Dissolution, February 27, 1929; Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.2/1, San Francisco. The directors were Rudolph Schilling [August's son], A. Hewitt, and A. Schilling, and the actual date of dissolution for the company was January 22, 1929.
On page 2, the report describes the title chain as complicated; “Since the original acquisition, several other parcels of land have been purchased and several separate companies came into existence, for convenience. At the start, Schilling and Volkmann, the Stauffer Chemical Co., and Mr. Whitney were the principal shareholders. Since then there have been many changes, with the result that all the land is now owned by Schilling and Volkmann, with the exception of a few shares of Dumbarton stock belonging to Mr. Lewis. As all the land is general known as Dumbarton land, it is not necessary here to go into the details of ownership and the portions owned by each partner.”
Package of materials sent by A. Schilling to Herbert Hoover at Stanford University, September 26, 1919, Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.13-1, San Francisco.
From his correspondence, Schilling's plans for Dumbarton Point and the South Bay are clearly linked to the construction and opening of the Panama Canal from 1904–14; it was anticipated to greatly increase shipping traffic to the San Francisco Bay. In a 1909 letter to J. J. Hill, associated with the Great Northern Railroad, Schilling described the Bay as “good ship-shelter, spacious, midway of the Coast, 160 miles from the shortest line between Panama and the ports of Japan and China.” Package of materials sent by A. Schilling to Herbert Hoover at Stanford University, September 26, 1919, Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.13-1, San Francisco.
For example, a letter dated January 14, 1911 to Representative E. A. Hayes in Washington, D.C.; Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.2/18, San Francisco.
See Otto Von Geldern, consulting engineer, “Reclamation of the Coyote Creek Marsh,” report to Dumbarton Land & Improvement Company, March 1910; Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.2-1/12, San Francisco. Increasing soil subsidence in this area may have also contributed to the difficulty of development, but there is no indication of this in Schilling's correspondence.
Even before the formal merger, the companies were deeply entwined; on September 3, 1926, Arden Salt Company, run by Schilling, was made the depository for DL&IC; interestingly, on the same date, Arden was also made depository for the Newark Land and Quarry Company, which was later dissolved on the same day as DL&IC, January 22, 1929; Stoel Rives case archive, Files SFB 4.2-5 and 4.20, San Francisco.
Postel, “More Than a Grain,” 18.
Ver Planck, Salt in California, 43-44; Leslie owned as much as 47,000 acres of marshland, but some portions could not be used for salt production, including fringes of remnant marshes along the bay front, and some small isolated tracts.
Lopez, Reclamation and Development, 10; Postel, “More Than a Grain,” 18.
Dewey, Drawbridge, California: A Hand-Me-Down History, 51.
Despite Leslie's dominance, there were still two much-smaller but still-operating salt companies in the Bay Area: American Salt Co., owned since the early 1860s by the Marsicano family and located north of Highway 92; and Oliver Brothers Salt Co., established by two younger members of the Oliver family after the old Oliver Salt Co. was sold to Leslie-California in 1931. Oliver Brothers built a small plant in 1937, just south of Highway 92 close to the ruins of the old plant, and began producing salt again. It is unclear when exactly American Salt went out of business; Oliver Brothers was still producing salt in 1977 but closed its doors soon after.
See Booker, Down by the Bay, Chapter 5, “From Real Estate to Refuge” for more detail on this chapter of the salt ponds' history.
Mel Scott, The San Francisco Bay Area: A Metropolis in Perspective, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 315.
In 1963, of the 276 miles of shoreline around the bay, only 4 miles were actually open to the public. Mel Scott, The Future of the San Francisco Bay (Berkeley: University of California Institute of Governmental Studies, 1963), 68–70.
Leslie Salt was not supportive of the formation of either the BCDC or the Refuge; company President Coleman C. Johnson spoke out publicly against both, suggesting that establishment of the Refuge would force them out of business entirely. Booker, Down by the Bay, Chapter 5. Also interesting that outright ownership of the land, rather than only having control of mineral rights, is only needed if you plan on doing something with the land other than salt production.
The purchase was originally intended as mitigation for a proposed runway expansion at San Francisco International Airport; however, the expansion plan was eventually dropped, so the restoration is now stand-alone project.
“When the project is completed—which may take decades and cost millions—it is likely the Bay will more closely resemble its original state than it has at any time in the last century.” Glen Martin, “A Tall Order: The Art and Science of Wetland Restoration,” Bay Nature (October–December 2004), 18.
The 1860s and '70s were a period of extensive hydraulic mining in the Sierras, hence the sediment loads in the bay during this time, when many of the earliest salt pond levees were built, were actually much higher than they are today.
For a discussion of the implications of the word “preservation” on landscape history, see Laura A. Watt, 2002, “The Trouble with Preservation, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Term for Wilderness Protection: A Case Study at Point Reyes National Seashore,” Association of Pacific Coast Geographers Yearbook, Volume 64, 55–72.
David Lowenthal, “Reflections on Humpty-Dumpty Ecology,” in Marcus Hall, ed., Restoration and History: The Search for A Useable Environmental Past (London: Routledge Publishers, 2010).
Letter from Dumbarton Land & Improvement Company to Morton Salt Company, January 3, 1920; Stoel Rives case archive, File SFB 4.2/20, San Francisco.
Nancy Langston, Where Land and Water Meet: A Western Landscape Transformed (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), 4.