Image : State Library SA PRG 280/1/14/627 Muston c.1913

Harvesting of Salt from Kangaroo Island prior to 1836

Many ships visited Kangaroo Island from the early 1800's for the high quality salt they were able to harvest from the shallow salt pans, but at what cost?... a cargo being imported to Sydney from the native beds at Kangaroo island, but independent of the difficulty of procuring the article at such a distance, for it has to be carried on men's backs several miles from the salt lagoon through the bush to the place where the vessel can be left at anchor ... Neither should it be forgotten that to encourage the Kangaroo island salt in the present state of things, would be to sanction a worse than West-India slavery in the cruel and unjustifiable treatment of the female blacks, whom the sealers employ at the point of the rod, in collecting and carrying the salt there found to the vessels. 

Hobart Town Courier (Tas. : 1827 - 1839), Friday 28 June 1833, page 4  


Sir—Having lately seen among other exports of the Colony that of salt, and thinking it may not generally be known to the Colonists with how little trouble and expense it is to be obtained in Kangaroo Island I hope the following account of the two salt lagoons there may not be uninteresting to the readers of the Adelaide Observer, and perhaps its publication may induce other individuals besides myself to undertake its collection. The best time for collecting it is in the month of February, and the largest supply is obtained after a wet winter. This was the case in 1836, when I gathered on the following February twenty tons for the South Australian Company; the contract was £1 perton, to be delivered on the beach, one mile from the lagoon at the head of the Bay of Shoals. There are three lagoons within a quarter of a mile, but only one of salt. It was at this place the Company had their first sheep station, as there was some good grass land round the lagoons; four families lived there for about nine months, each having a cottage and a garden, with plenty of vegetables. The lagoon from which the salt was collected is about three miles in circumference, but the water in the winter is not more than five feet deep.The salt lying on the surface (which is of white clay) is from an inch to an inch and a half thick ; the crystals are large, and of a cube shape, many of them a quarter-of-an-inch square; I had ironscrapers made for collecting it, such as are used on the roads in England. From the lagoon to the beach the road in summer is very good, but in winter almost half of it is two feet under water. We found a good beaten road, cut, I suppose, by the sealers on the Island or sailors belonging to ships coming from Sydney for salt, which has been the case as far back as 1818, when Captain Sutherland was there. The sailors informed me that in a good season a vessel of 300 tons could load there; but this, from my own experience, I should say is overrated. From the tracks of wheels along the west side of the bay, I should think the vessel loaded off Point Marsden, where, by the-by, we found a well of good fresh water. Any vessel (under 200 tons) going for salt, can work round the Sandpits into the Bay of Shoals within three miles of the head of it. Captain Morgan, of the Duke of York, did so, and repaired his ship there.  The other salt lagoon in the Island lies at the head of the inlet called the American River, near the entrance of the Sealer's Bay. The salt formed in this lagoon is finer than the other, but the lagoon does not yield so much. It has been worked this season, but to what extent I cannot say. There is some good land about it. A low sand flat of about a mile in extent connects the head of this creek with the coast opposite Cape Jervis, and boats are often drawn across in bad weather.

I am, Sir, Your obedient servant

T. H. BEARE. Netley, near Adelaide, 27th June, 1843.

KANGAROO ISLAND SALT. (1843, July 8). Adelaide Observer (SA : 1843 - 1904), p. 6.

... During the early 1800s, at the time of unofficial settlement at Kangaroo Island, salt was scraped from the surfaces of Muston Lake, White Lagoon, Salt Lagoon and some smaller ones near Kingscote. Most of this was used for domestic purposes, meat preservation and the tanning of hides which would be pegged out on wooden boards or on flat ground and coated with salt. Occasionally sealing vessels also called in to collect a supply of salt. Both hides and salt were bartered for tea, rum and sugar as these men had no need or use for money. 'Exports' of salt from Kangaroo Island to Adelaide in 1843 amounted to thirteen tons. In 1844 this had increased to eighty-two tons and by 1913 it was a massive twenty-thousand tons. ...
Pioneer (Yorketown, SA : 1898 - 1954), Saturday 30 October 1909, page 2

Private George Wells (1889-1917 K.I.A.) was well known on K.I., having been employed by the Commonwealth Salt Refining Co. Ltd. for a number of years as fireman on the locomotive. He was of a genial disposition, and was well liked and respected at the Salt Lake.

Notes from Yorkes Peninsula. (1918, February 9). The Kangaroo Island Courier (Kingscote, SA : 1907 - 1951), p. 2.

The Globe Salt Company

The Globe Salt Works Initiated the first long term working of salt resources in 1897 at the eastern end of the island at Salt Lake. (1)According to the Registration document numbered 2364, the Globe Salt Company having offices at 85, King William Street, was established on the 23rd of June 1897. Their brand shows that the company operated on Kangaroo Island for the short term of their existence, at Salt Lagoon. The company had a difficult start, and was initially taken over by the Colonial Salt Refining Company of Adelaide, in mid August 1899. Two years later, the company had again changed hands, this time the Commonwealth Salt Refining Company had assumed control. (2)

The Commonwealth Salt Refining Company

The original Commonwealth Salt Refining Company had its origins before 1901, when it  took over the Globe Salt Company operations on Kangaroo Island. The directors had rather optimistic plans in salt production, and began developing the site at Salt Lake, but it too soon experienced difficulties. To the rescue in 1905 (3)came Mr Arthur Muston, a Sydney businessman, who reconstructed the company, He planned to direct most of the Kangaroo Island product to his home city.(4) The output was shipped to Port Adelaide for refining until a refinery was built on the shore of the lagoon in the early 1920’s. (5) 

The “new”Commonwealth Salt Refining Company began operations in earnest. At the Salt Lake, Muston erected a factory, bagging room, loading shed, engine room, blacksmith and carpenters shops and a crushing shed, as well as a railway to American River.  The workers were well catered for also, with a boarding house, several cottages, a school and a general store. The lake was divided into nine crystallizing ponds by using earthen walls. (6)

There is a report in the Farm, Stock and Station Journal, Vol 3 Number 22, April 1908, page 19 about the Salt Works and the railway at Salt Lagoon.

"Four and a half miles of railway have been laid down on the way to American River, which covers half the distance. When the remainder has been completed, the trucks will be drawn, most likely by a locomotive, to a jetty on the river, Though small, this will be the first railway on the Island. May others follow.

Mr C.W. Butler, who will complete the construction of the various work and take charge from the present date onwards, arrived recently. We understand that the large Salt lagoon has been divided by a wall 19 feet wide. A powerful pumping plant will pump the water from one half to the other so that salt scraping operations can always be proceeded with on part of the bed of the lagoon. When all the surface salt has been taken from one side, the water will be pumped from the other which will then be ready for operations.

Mr. Butler, who has tested the quality of the salt, affirms that it is the finest in Australia, and that a portion is "drift" salt, which will need no refining. Later a refinery will be erected at the lagoon. At present, there are about 30 men employed on the scene of operations."

The point where the railway met the American River was later known as Muston.


 Acknowledgment: Gil Daw who compiled notes from Jean Nunn's research.

Monday, Dec. 2nd. [1907]


The unrest that has been experienced at the Commonwealth Salt Refining Company's works at the Salt Lake, K.I. has come to a finish, the men starting work again to-day. 

The trouble arose from one or two Discontented and troublesome spirits who did not want work and thereby did not want others to work either. The wages paid were 7/ a day and the strikers asked for 8/. The strike commenced last Wednesday the 20th ult. The men were not consulted at all. The leaders went up the line just as work was commencing after dinner and said " Pull out, boys ; we are striking for 8/ a day." With that all came out and came home. On Thursday the men asked who had arranged the strike and were told that 7/ a day was not enough and they were sure to get another shilling if they held out. But a split occurred in the camp. The strike was declared a " no strike" unless a ballot was taken in which all the men could have a vote but the leaders re-fused to have anything to do with a ballot. The strikers have left camp but those who wanted work have stayed and are again at work. When the Managing Director called for men in Adelaide about 200 presented themselves but of that number 44 were chosen. After they were taken into the office to take names they struck for 8/ a day. They were promptly told to get and a fresh lot taken on. The engineer in charge treated his men better and was more considerate for their comfort than many so-called bosses. He supplied everything in food for 35 men from the time they left Port Adelaide until they started work on Tuesday, on which day he started the pay. After calling up the men and telling them their pay started he told them to make there camps and that they could have the day to get fixed up comfortably. The men left are of a good steady working class who know what a good job and boss are worth. Men are being put on every day and it is expected to have about 50 men in camp in a few days. Men who have not sought work on the salt works need not be afraid to come as there is plenty of work for them. The making of a dam across the lake has been let on contract to Messrs Holland, Hader and Wellum who intend to start work this week and who have plenty of work for men who are seeking it. The contractors are offering the same as the managers of the Lake, 10½d per hour, which is the Government wage.

Salt Lagoon. (1907, December 7). The Kangaroo Island Courier (Kingscote, SA : 1907 - 1951), p. 2. 
Truth (Brisbane, Qld. : 1900 - 1954), Sunday 8 June 1919, page 12Death index (SAGHS) of the young man, the subject of the article "A peculiar incident" aboveGiven Name(s): JohnLast Name: MCCONVILLEDeath Date: 19 Mar 1919Gender: MAge: 27yApprox. Birth Year: 1892Marital Status: NResidence: No fixed abodeDeath Place: Nr Mount Thisby KIDistrict: YankalillaSymbol: IXBook/Page: 427/209Cross Reference: MCCOOMBE John


... Salt is another industry that has developed greatly during latter years. The principal source on Kangaroo Island is situated about five miles in a west south-westerly direction from the Muston Jetty at American River. This source is a lake about two square miles in area, and is worked by the Commonwealth Salt Refining Company Ltd , of Sydney, N.S.W. A light line of rails with steam traction connects the lake and the jetty at the river from which a light draught steamer conveys the salt to Port Adelaide for shipment to Sydney and elsewhere. During the winter months the lake is filled by the rains to a depth of two or three feet, and the water absorbs the sodium chloride from the lake's basin until summer approaches. The effect of the sun and the heat is to cause evaporation of the water, and when it has all been dispersed, a crust of crystallised salt is left on the bottom of the lake, varying in thickness from one to three inches. Light railway lines constructed in sections, are now laid out on the surface radiating right and left, and gangs of men are employed in gathering in the salt and loading it into small trucks which run on the lines. Large forks with about ten prongs are utilised for the purpose of taking up the salt crust. The men employed earn very good wages, but the work is hard and the conditions rough, as they generally have to work in several inches of brine, and the slightest scratch be comes very painful. 

When the salt has been gathered it is stacked in large heaps on high ground, from which it is removed as required to the refining mill which is quite near to the lake. This mill is usually kept working all the year round, in order that the supply of salt may be sufficient to cope with the general demand. At the milt the crude salt is first thrown into a large hopper and then conveyed up a shaft to a height of about 20 feet. After passing through a pair of rollers and being roughly cracked, the salt falls into a water tank about 20 feet long, 4 feet wide and 4 feet deep. This washes it, and the chloride is afterwards conducted on two inclined plane screw conveyors to another hopper. From there it is run into a swiftly revolving cage called a centrifugal or hydro, and most of the water that is mixed with the salt is thrown off by centrifugal force. The crystals are then conveyed to another set of elevators which take them to the first crushing mill, which is nothing more than an old, converted flour mill. From here the salt falls into a large revolving cylinder, about 30 feet in length, having a diameter of 6 feet. A blast of hot air is blown through the cylinder by a 36in. blower which draws the air from the pipes passing over a furnace. The blast is maintained through the cylinder, and comes in contact with the salt, which is thoroughly dried. At this stage the chloride is in the form of a coarse compound, which is used by butchers for salting meats. To obtain a finer quality it is elevated a third time and passed through what is termed the fine mill, from which it goes to a silk revolving screen, very similar to that which is used for refining flour, and any crystals that are too coarse to pass through the mesh are conveyed back to be re-crushed at the mills. The fine salt runs down shoots and is packed in bags and railed to the Muston Jetty at American River. During a good season this lake produces from 20,000 to 30,000 tons of salt. ...

Kangaroo Island Courier (Kingscote, SA : 1907 - 1951), Saturday 20 September 1924, page 2  AS OTHERS SEE US (1924, September 20). The Kangaroo Island Courier (Kingscote, SA : 1907 - 1951), p. 4. 
Photos: Chris Frizell, Facebook, 21 Aug 2023

Also see Bev Overton’s book “Salt, Gypsum and Charcoal” 2007.