Saline Springs

By Dennis Figg | January 2, 2001
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 2001

Many Missouri counties are named after people, but Saline County is named after a mineral, salt. That's appropriate, considering the salt of the earth wells up here.

The folks who live in Saline County today are largely unaware of their salty heritage. They don't profit from tours of the salt springs. Their children aren't schooled on salinity. Local churches don't bless the brine that boils from the earth.

The saline springs of Saline County are small, smelly and mostly forgotten. A few persist as neglected features in corners of corn fields or low cow pastures. Most lie quietly in the river floodplain and continue to pump salty water into nearby creeks.

Saline springs have not always been so neglected. Before settlement, Missouri's saline springs were often visited by deer and bison, as well as by the native people who traveled the prairies along the Missouri River. Daniel Boone and other frontiersman sought them out and recorded their locations. Early settlers lined the spring runs with heavy black kettles and extracted salt for home and commercial use.

In the latter 19th century, developers built health resorts around some of the larger salt springs. Visitors looked upon these brines of an ancient ocean as a source of good health and well-being. By the turn of the century, though, the springs had been abandoned.

A saline spring is both a curiosity and a rare natural feature. It consists of little more than a small clear pool of mineralized water. If you look closely, you can see hydrogen sulphide gas bubbles rising to the surface. It may smell strongly organic or sewery-mostly unpleasant.

A white salty substance collects on leaves and other items that fall into the pool. The water is nearly lifeless, except for a few bloodworms or tiny insect larvae. The overflow exits the pool in a small muddy ditch that's also mostly devoid of life.

In other words, a saline spring looks pretty much like the site of a broken sewer pipe that is spilling tainted water on the ground. To add insult, the mud of a saline spring is sticky and clings tenaciously to your shoes and boots.

Unusual plants exist around the edges of some saline springs, suggesting to botanists that saline springs may have supported unique natural communities before human activity altered the habitat. Seashore salt grass, common along ocean beaches, still grows near several springs. Salt-encrusted mud flats harbor tiny spike rushes ringed with narrow- leafed cattails, clumps of cordgrass and weedy plants that tolerate salty soils and frequent flooding.

Algae live in some of the pools, too. These aren't your typical Missouri pond scum. They are oceanic algae, or at least have oceanic relatives.

Springs, both fresh and saline, are common in Missouri. Springs are evidence of water moving underground. As water percolates downward, it finds its way through geological layers. When it encounters a layer that is mostly impenetrable, it moves laterally. It can travel such a path for many miles before running onto the ground when that layer of geology surfaces.

With enough rainfall and considerable overburden of rock and soil, subterranean water can amass considerable pressure, forcing it to rise up, or "boil." The distance water travels before it surfaces and the time it spends moving underground greatly affect water quality.

While moving underground, water dissolves minerals, absorbs chemicals and carries gases. It may be clear and cold, but the pure water we associate with natural springs simply does not exist. All water carries a history of the geology it touches. Water traveling through beds of rock heavy with sulphur smells and tastes like sulphur. If the layers are heavily saline, the water becomes salty.

Saline springs occur in other parts of Missouri, too, including neighboring Howard, Randolph and Ralls counties, but they are most abundant in Saline County. In 1892, Paul Schweitzer reported on them extensively in, "The Mineral Waters of Missouri."

"Muriatic waters, or brines, contain common salt as their main constituent and are in their origin related in some way to the ocean," wrote Schweitzer. "This vast inland ocean, covering the interior of the North American continent for thousands of square miles, became encroached upon by the land forming to the east and west and north, with islands rising here and there out of its waters, until it was forced back to its present sites. During such uprisings of the land, many small portions of the sea were cut off permanently or for a time to leave their mineral contents behind as witnesses of their former existence. These minerals are reached today by the percolating waters and reappear once more in the form of springs or artesian wells, or when near enough to the surface, as licks or seeps, such as are represented abundantly in Missouri.

"This version of geologic history is both fact and fantasy, but it does well to establish that former oceans have left salt deposits far from the oceans of today."

Schweitzer was writing during a time when mineral waters were believed to be highly medicinal, and people expressed the same interest in them then as they now do about medicinal plants.

"It is not the purpose of this publication to advocate one or the other of these waters," Schweitzer explained. "The tabulation is such as is calculated to enable the physician to select easily, for any given purpose, the proper water."

The "proper water" was bottled and shipped far and wide, but many people visited the springs. Some areas were developed with baths, cottages saunas and hotels and still contain the ruins of these health resorts. Old newspaper articles and photographs at county historical societies often contain clues their former splendor. The following paragraph about McAllister Springs is from "The Mineral Waters of Missouri," which was written in 1892:

"The property is owned by private parties but managed and under the direction of a resident physician. It contains a commodious hotel with thirty rooms, ball-room, billiard and bowling alley, and some private summer residences, valued at $25,000.00. The Black Sulphur water is shipped in barrels and jugs. It has been used for twenty years and longer, the management claiming it to be beneficial in dyspepsia, skin diseases, blood poisoning, rheumatism, liver diseases and stomach troubles, of which proof is offered in a number of letters received from parties who have been benefitted by its use."

Little remains of the facility today, or of any other Saline County health resorts dedicated to muriatic waters.

Only two saline springs have been protected on public land. Relatives of Daniel Boone tamed one of the saline springs in Howard County, developing a salt production business that functioned for many years. You can visit Boonslick State Historic Site in Howard County, across the Missouri River from Arrow Rock. Interpretive displays explain salt production at the nearby Arrow Rock Visitors Center.

A second group of a saline springs is protected at Blue Lick Conservation Area in Saline County, south of Marshall. Here is an 1892 description of Blue Lick:

"At least four or five of the springs here used as beverages could be classified as "black sulphur" or better , as sulpho-saline springs. The water itself issues from a large gum and a great quantity of gas is continually escaping (probably carbonic acid gas). The water is used for bathing purposes entirely. The springs are much frequented during the summer months, and the waters of `Blue Lick' and Black Sulphur springs are also shipped to Marshall in small quantities.

"Salt was made from the various springs here several years ago and the lines of ditches where the kettles were placed and water evaporated can still be seen.

"The water of all the springs is used for drinking purposes excepting that of Gum Spring, which is used for bathing.

"...waters are claimed to be beneficial in kidney and bladder disease, dyspepsia, diseases of the bowels, cholera infantum, chronic diarrhea, general debility, and for other troubles."

There are no obvious remnants of the resort at Blue Lick. The Conservation Department intends to replant the area with saline tolerant plants. As they are now, neither site is a showplace for salt springs. Both are little more than pools of salty water in an otherwise typical north Missouri landscape. The story of Saline County and the former glory of its saline springs is mostly forgotten.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer