Saline's Plymouth Rock
A playful dog rediscovers a long-lost salt spring.
Saline's name and identity are tied up with salt, yet the actual salt springs that once bubbled up along the Saline River south of town hand't been seen since the area was drained for farming in the nineteenth century. But last year, Jim Peters accidentally discovered a slat spring that is still active!
Peters and his dog Bonnie, a gentle but energetic pit bull terrier, were hiking on undeveloped city land near Saline's wastewater treatment plant. Bonnie pulled Peters toward a muddy puddle to get a drink. "As she got close, she sank in up to her chest in muck. Before I could pull her out, she had backed herself, out," he recalls.
Peters washed the grayish mud off Bonnie in the nearby Saline River, then went back to take a closer look at the puddle. “I noticed very few plant varieties growing nearby and that the mud was covered with deer tracks.” That’s when Peters, then a city councilmember, had his “aha” moment: Why were the deer drinking there when they could have used the river? And why was the puddle in a clearing with no trees and substantially less vegetation than anywhere else nearby?
Peters collected some of the watery muck in a plastic bottle he found and took it to the city lab to be tested. “When the report came back that it was as salty as sea water, I was like a kid at Christmas,” recalls Peters. He double-checked these findings using a cleaner bottle and another lab. Again the same results came back.
As soon as his suspicion was confirmed, Peters contacted Saline historian Bob Lane. The two men began working together, Peters researching the salt springs’ prehistory and Lane putting the more recent Saline history in context.
Peters research revealed that Saline’s salt springs are part of an ancient sea bed formed about 600 million years ago, which extended from present-day New Jersey to Wisconsin. (Detroit’s salt mines are part of the same system.) When the Ice Age was over, about 12,000 years ago, animals and people began moving into this area. Prehistoric animals came to drink at the salt springs. Remains of mastodons and mammoths have been found nearby.
Native Americans followed, drawn by the good hunting and also because they too liked the salt. Their remains have also been found. According to the 1881 History of Washtenaw County, Michigan, “Early seekers for relics did not hesitate to open shallow graves and the ground was strewn with the bones of departed warriors.” Lane has identified the location of two Indian burial mounds near the salt springs. One has been leveled for the Crestwood subdivision--people remember finding bones and relics at the time it was being built in the 1960s. A hill west of the DNR Fisheries is believed to be the other. The most recent Indian residents, the Potawatomi, who came to this area in the sixteenth century, used six paths, still there, that converge at the springs. They were known to trade salt with neighboring tribes.
Frend explorers gave the Saline River its name in the 1600s. The first European visitors also appreciated the salt springs. Trappers used the salt to preserve beaver pelts, which were in great demand in Europe for hats. The springs were first pinpointed on a map in 1819 by surveyor Joseph Francis in section 12 of Saline Township.
In 1826, the first permanent settler in Saline Township, Leonard Miller, built his home near the salt springs. Others built nearby. In 1829, F. A. Dewey, a pioneer travelling to Tecumseh, wrote of taking the United States Military Road “west through the Saline River near the salt springs.” This road, the first across the state, ran from Detroit to Chicago following an old Indian trail; it's now Michigan Avenue. In 1832, Orange Risdon, who'd surveyed the road, laid out the town of Saline on high ground north of the salt springs.
The 1881 County History told of an attempt by a group of local men to manufacture salt in 1863. “A building was erected, a derrick put in place, and boring commenced. After three unsuccessful attempts to sink a well, the project was abandoned. There has always existed a doubt in the minds of many whether the contractor engaged to sink the well acted in good faith. The charge is boldly made that he was bought off by rival interests,” they reported.
Evidence of this failed endeavor was found in 1944, when a farmer named Harry Finch was plowing for corn and felt his plow sink down. Investigating, the site he found evidence of the former salt wells. The late Ray Alber, who farmed on land marked as part of the salt springs, once told Lane that he remembered that he and other farmers used to pick up salt clumps that they’d give to their animals.
Lane worked out the wells' location on the west side of Macon Road and has shown it to people as part of historic tours. and has shown it to people as part of historic tours. He has also, with the land owner’s permission, gone over the ground with a metal detector but found nothing left of the would-be salt works.
The 1863 mining attempt is the last reference to active salt springs. When the County History was written eighteen years later, the authors felt the need to offer proof that the salt springs had even existed: “That salt has been made here in years gone by cannot be doubted. Iron kettles have been found which were once doubtless used for this purpose."
So Peters’ delight at his find is easy to understand. The spring presumably escaped discovery for so long because it's in an overgrown area that people rarely visit. Even if another dog had dived in as Bonnie did, only someone well versed in Saline history would have realized what the muddy puddle might be.
Last October, Peters sponsored a bill to create “Salt Spring Park” on the land where he found the active spring. It passed unanimously. “A forgotten parcel of city-owned land in the Saline River valley will now be available for all to enjoy as a unique park dedicated to our local heritage," explains Peters. “It will allow us to provide proper stewardship of our salt springs, enjoy nature and reconnect with Saline’s distant past.” Lane is equally enthusiastic, explaining “There is nothing now in town that explains why we are called ‘Saline.’”
Peters' council term ended last year, but he's continuing to work on the project as a member of the parks commission. His vision is to leave the site as natural as possible but to improve the trail and build an observation deck with signage at the spring, so people won’t get as muddy as Bonnie did. He would like someday to see the spring connected by a walking trail to Curtiss and Millpond parks-- he says that could be “a beautiful, safe, free from car traffic path, much of which is along the river.” He knows all this will take money, which he hopes can be provided with grants. The local Eagle Scouts have already volunteered to clear the overgrown path.
Peters worries that the muddy puddle would underwhelm some people. He compares the spring to Plymouth Rock: “It’s just a brown rock to some – but it’s what it stands for, not what it looks like.” But so far, the reaction fromt he public has been very positive. "People find it fascinating," he reports.