Michigan road salt & the Detroit Salt Mine

December 10, 2008

Salt Mountain, photo by otisourcat

In the battle against snow and ice that is waged every winter day on Michigan’s roads, salt remains and essential ingredient. MDOT records for 1991 show that 442,223 tons of road salt were applied to 10,000 linear miles of trunk line maintained under MDOT’s jurisdiction. The Wayne County Road Commission notes that a single salt run for a truck can use up to 12 tons of salt, depending upon the truck size. That page has several more bits of trivia including the fact that at temperatures below 20 degrees, salt begins to lose its effectiveness. It becomes almost completely ineffective at 0 degrees or colder.

The Salt Institute’s page on Michigan salt says that estimated salt deposits in Michigan are astronomical. In the Detroit area alone, it is believed that there are over 71 trillion tons of unmined salt. Geological studies estimate that 55 counties of the Lower Peninsula cover 30,000 trillion tons of salt.

Our largest salt mine is actually the Detroit Salt Mine, operated by the Detroit Salt Company (closed for a time but now re-opened, comes with an annoying & loud Flash warning) and I suppose is makes sense that in 1940 Detroit became the first major city to use rock salt for snow and ice control. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Murray has a great report titled Exploring a Great Lakes Salt Mine that takes you inside the Cleveland salt mine that extends under Lake Erie. The best exploration of the mine is via The ghostly salt city beneath Detroit in the Detroit News:

In a 1925 Detroit News article, miner Joel Payton told about his salt mine job. “The only dirty part of this job is going down to work,” Mr. Payton explained.

“I have to wear this old outfit because the big buckets that take us down get smudgy from the action of the sulphur water on the iron of the buckets.

“The mine itself is dry and clean as pure rock salt in a solid vein 35 feet thick is bound to be. The high vaulted rooms that we have hollowed out have sparkling white floors, walls and ceilings.”

Payton continued, “One reason we don’t have any rats in our Detroit mine is because the rats would have nothing to eat except the leavings of our lunch pails. And by the way, not only are there no rats or cockroaches or other living creature in our mine, but also no remains of living things from past ages. The salt vein is, of course, a dried up sea that once covered this section for hundreds of miles. You’d naturally suppose that some fish or vegetation would have been pickled or fossilized in the brine as it hardened. But I’ve never seen a single fossil or sea shell or any remains of that kind”

The photo above was taken at the Verplank salt dock, Muskegon and you can see more photos of otisourcat has taken of Michigan road salt.

12 Responses to “Michigan road salt & the Detroit Salt Mine”


  1. [...] on Michigan in Pictures today, there’s a post about Michigan road salt & salt mines that you might find interesting. The Traverse City Record-Eagle found road salt & plowing to be [...]

  2. Ratty Says:

    I’ve always been fascinated with the salt mines. It makes me wonder why our lakes aren’t full of salt.

    • PJ Says:

      There is an excellent hour long show on the History Channel right now that show how the entire state of Michigan, and Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Erie are part of the Niagara Escarpment (the area that is higher than the bottom of Niagara Falls), a field of basalt rock that the Great Lakes today lie on top of. Under the basalt rock is the largest salt deposit in the world! It is the remainder of what used to be the seas (saltwater) that used to cover this whole area!

  3. Joann Holden Says:

    Are any mine tours being conducted? Any information would be appreciated.

    • PJ Says:

      Apparently not right now. I’ve contacted both the Detroit Salt Mine and the Siftco Mine at Goderich, Ontario and they have none.

  4. Will Short Says:

    I hope you can help me? I saw a TV show the other night about your salt mines under the lakes and I think all of Detroit and I noticed that where they showed the walls carved out there were what seemed to be layer and layers of salt like you would find if you cut open a tree and you were trying to find out how old the tree was. Do you have any idea of how many layers of salt there are? Is it 10 or 100 or maybe even 1000 layers of salt, one on top of another? Thank you very much for helping me to answer this question.

    Will Short

  5. Twila Says:

    Keep digging and we will all drown.

  6. Twila Says:

    Ohio digging at the wrist and Detroit digging in the palm of the hand eventually the wrist will break and we all will drown.Common sense will tell you to stop digging. But greed will tell you to keep digging. Now you want to know why the earth is shifting. So far michigan has been spared but only God knows when we will get ours

  7. matthew warren Says:

    for if the salt is of no use it is to be cast to the ground and trampled on. may we join hands, americal

  8. jctoad Says:

    MDOT used 92 million tons of salt? According to http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/sr/sr235/017-030.pdf The whole country only used about 10 million tons in 1988. I couldn’t get the 1991 link to work, but I did get to the article. http://www.michigan.gov/documents/intro_51448_7.pdf
    You miss read their goofy text
    “…during the winter of 199 l-92,442,223 tons of road salt were applied…”
    Should have been “1991-92, 442,223 tons”. 442,223 tons seems a bit more like it.
    92 million = 208 times more salt! We really would be in the rust belt. So MDOT uses about 4.5% of all the nation’s road salt. That’s about 10,630 railroad hopper cars full.
    I got to tour the salt mine in Detroit back in the 80’s. Way cool.

    • farlane Says:

      Thanks for the catch JC! Looks like I wrote that at 7 AM – guessing more coffee would have helped!

      The text was goofy but I should have caught that! All fixed now.


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