Activity at old Morton Salt Mine

John Christensen
A small pile of concrete and scrap steel is all that remains of the guard house of the Morton Salt Mine on Severne Road south of Himrod. Two other buildings were razed and the property is for sale.

In recent months, there has been more activity at the Morton Salt Mine in Himrod than there has been in decades.

Responding to an order from the Town of Milo Code Enforcement Officer, Tony Validzic, Morton contracted with Empire Building Diagnostics Inc. from Buffalo to demolish three buildings: the office building, the pump house, and the guard house at the front gate.

Validzic says the buildings were not secured and in great disrepair. He ordered they either be brought up to code for vacant structures or be demolished. 

Another processing building was torn down years ago. Two other buildings, one that housed the machine shop and miners’ showers and one that was the railroad and truck loading facility, will be repaired and secured, as will the perimeter fence around the property. The two headframe towers over the sealed mine shafts will also remain.

The 178-acre site, still owned by Morton Salt, though defunct for almost 45 years, has also recently been put on the commercial real estate market. Wine Trail Properties realtor Austin Lapp had been in negotiations with the company since last October. They have settled on a $700,000 asking price for the property, which is zoned light industrial. 

Validzic explained the heavy industrial activity of mining was a pre-existing, non-conforming use that was in place before Milo’s zoning laws. He believes any attempt to restart the mine would be unlikely, given the State DEC regulations and the proximity to Seneca Lake.

A short-lived boon

The Morton Salt Mine had a bright but brief existence in the early 1970s. Penn Yan Fire Chief Frank Ellis remembers it fondly. He was employed there he says from the day it opened in 1970 until it ceased operations just six years later. 

Ellis says the prosperity it brought to many miners and other workers, and the tax money it brought to the county, town, and schools made it a boon for the area.

“Morton was a very good company to work for,” says Ellis, “very good to their employees. And it paid very well. I wish I could have worked for them for life.”

Ellis recalls many of the statistics of the mining operation. Those two towers sit atop mine shafts (long since sealed over with concrete caps) that are 2,300 feet deep. The salt caverns have ceilings 32 feet tall columns of rock 32 feet square to support them. Ellis recalls they had a slight incline to them. Morton owned the mineral rights for a large region beyond the actual property, and the caverns stretched in all four directions from the shafts. One myth he dispelled was that the mine went under Seneca Lake; it does come close to the shoreline but far underground.

The final years of the Morton operation saw the quality of the salt decline. “It had too much shale. It wasn’t even good for road salt,” says Ellis. In the final months, Morton was barely earning half of what the salt cost to mine per ton. Ellis says the poor quality of the salt, two spills from the brine lagoon that held the water pumped out of the mine, the required extensive cleanup, and new environmental protection requirements were too much for the mine to continue.

“I’ll always remember that last day – May 19, 1976,” says Ellis. “that was tough for a lot of people, and it hit Yates County hard.” 

With the property now listed for sale, and if a new industrial concern can be attracted to the site, perhaps it will add to the prosperity of Yates County once more.