Salty Buisiness


If you’ve been fortunate enough to visit the Emerald Coast, then you know what a great stretch of God’s paradise it is. This place seems to be a natural playground for all God’s creatures whether they were made for land, air, or sea . . . and certainly people figured out a long time ago many ways to play hard here as well. But, there was a time when all the fun and games seem to almost come to a complete halt. Things took a serious turn and apart from the usual hard work life requires of us, there was something else that made life in Panama City Beach a lot more sobering.

I’m talking about the days of the Civil War. The war disrupted everyone’s life and messed with the economy big time. Apart from the economic slump it brought, the oncoming war attracted but little attention among the local fishermen. To them the war was someone else’s battle to be fought. They were used to a relatively simple life and kept their focus to the things right there at hand. They worked hard, but no matter how you look at it, it was still fishing and we all know if you like what you’re doing then it’s hardly work at all. Like the bumper sticker says, “A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work.” Still, they were not politicians and apart from the economic impact they, like with many others trying to make a living, had little intereste in the contentious affairs of the nation.

Nonetheless, the encroaching war was affecting everything in the area and soon there was limited commerce going on with the shipments of lumber from the local mills which were in operation. Some of the farmers were able to put together a small amount of cotton which was shipped from the landing on Cedar Creek and from Grassy Point. There was however some trade going on with Cuba and some of the local cattle men were still enjoying some profitable export there now and then.

Back then St Andrews Bay, the deep water port of the pan handle, had just one customs officer and given the current state of affairs there was little for him to do. Most of his work was generated by settlers in the Econfina settlement who raised much of the cattle which were being exported. Other local commerce were still enjoying some trade were the local lumber mills. One was located on Watson's Bayou, and another one situated on what was then called Laughton's Bayou but is now know as Callaway Bayou. Both of these mills did very well despite the war and were able to profitably export much of their cut even during these hard times, providing some much needed work.

In and industrious effort Laughton's Bayou mill purchased an old steamboat at Apalachicola which was brought to the mill site to be salvaged. Here the engine and boilers taken out and used for power while the old derelict hull of the ship served as a lodging place for the labor employed. With this added improvement the mill enjoyed continued success and decent production and export up until the storm of 1858 which destroyed much of the mill and the boat. Therefore, during the remainder of the war, the boilers were cut up and used for kettles in the manufacture of salt.

Because of the war there was a strategic attempt to control exports and general shipping. Nonetheless, with its many secluded deep water bayous, St. Andrews Bay was a good base for the profitable businesses engaged in blockade running. The whole area was very active with local planters shipping cotton and securing needed supplies for the Confederacy needed on return trips of the runners. However, early in the war, one of the most extensive businesses that took off was the manufacture of salt which was produced all along various points on the bay. However, the crude process whereby the salt was produced made St. Andrews Bay far more conspicuous than it was in peace times.

It was between 1861 and 1865 that St Andrew Bay Saltworks rose to be one of the largest producers of salt in the South. This one company greatly contributed to the Confederate cause by mass producing and providing salt for the southern troops and citizens. Because of the lack of refrigeration salt was a necessary preservative in those times. With the necessity to provide large amount of food supplies to many who were dislocated due to the war this put salt in high demand which also drove the value upwards.  The price for salt rose as high as $50 per bushel, and was produced by evaporating sea water in wood-fire Saltworks all along the perimeter of the West Bay, East Bay and North Bay and Lake Powell. Now while that price sounds like a large number, it took a whole a large quantity of sea water to be evaporated to leave that much salt. Though it was a crude and simple process is was nonetheless a considerable amount of time and work.

Because of the necessity of salt to the Confederate, an estimated 2,500 men were exempt from combat duty in order to labor in the Saltworks. Most of these men were from Alabama, Georgia and Florida. After production, salt was transported to Eufaula, Alabama, and then to Montgomery for distribution throughout the Confederate states. Understanding the strategic importance of St. Andrew Bay Saltworks to the Confederacy the Union forces initiated a plan to attempt to cripple the Confederate forces by commissioning Master W.R. Browne, Commander of the U. S. Restless, to commence a series of aggressive assaults in August 1862.

Later in December 1863 the Union forces increased their attacks to which the Confederates guards were unable to resist.  The success of the Union assaults resulted in the destruction of more than 290 saltworks which were valued by Master Browne at more than $3,000,000. Such a claim was blatantly exaggerated, since that would have placed a worth of more than ten thousand dollars per salt work, which being replaced at even today’s cost would be absurd. Nevertheless, the St. Andrew Bay Saltworks employees simply rebuilt them almost immediately and they remained operational throughout February 1865.

Sometimes the abrasive thrust of more current endeavors tend to erase the memories of the hard life of those in recent past that brought us all here to where we are today. Fortunately there are still many designated areas that preserve the historical significance and memory of certain points around the bay. With the fast pace of our present lives filled with so much abundance and distracting entertainment competing for our attention, it is too easy to forget the struggles of those before us that helped carve out the communities, state and nation in which we live. The Emerald Coast is still a great stretch of God’s paradise that continues to be a great natural playground, thanks to the lives and the hard work of countless unnamed contributors to its rich history.  I’ve personally experienced over and over again the worth of a drive to one of the local historical sites to reflect on what they endured, and what all one has today. Sometimes, if we are to truly appreciate and preserve what freedom and liberties we have, protect the personal properties we cherish, then we must slow down enough to respect the past hardships of others.