Saline Springs

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 8, 2010

Many Missouri counties are named after people, but Saline County is named after a mineral, salt. That's appropriate, considering the salt of the earth wells up here.

The folks who live in Saline County today are largely unaware of their salty heritage. They don't profit from tours of the salt springs. Their children aren't schooled on salinity. Local churches don't bless the brine that boils from the earth.

The saline springs of Saline County are small, smelly and mostly forgotten. A few persist as neglected features in corners of corn fields or low cow pastures. Most lie quietly in the river floodplain and continue to pump salty water into nearby creeks.

Saline springs have not always been so neglected. Before settlement, Missouri's saline springs were often visited by deer and bison, as well as by the native people who traveled the prairies along the Missouri River. Daniel Boone and other frontiersman sought them out and recorded their locations. Early settlers lined the spring runs with heavy black kettles and extracted salt for home and commercial use.

In the latter 19th century, developers built health resorts around some of the larger salt springs. Visitors looked upon these brines of an ancient ocean as a source of good health and well-being. By the turn of the century, though, the springs had been abandoned.

A saline spring is both a curiosity and a rare natural feature. It consists of little more than a small clear pool of mineralized water. If you look closely, you can see hydrogen sulphide gas bubbles rising to the surface. It may smell strongly organic or sewery-mostly unpleasant.

A white salty substance collects on leaves and other items that fall into the pool. The water is nearly lifeless, except for a few bloodworms or tiny insect larvae. The overflow exits the pool in a small muddy ditch that's also mostly devoid of life.

In other words, a saline spring looks pretty much like the site of a broken sewer pipe that is spilling tainted water on the ground. To add insult, the mud of a saline spring is sticky and clings tenaciously to your shoes and boots.

Unusual plants exist around the edges of some saline springs, suggesting to botanists that saline springs may have supported unique natural communities before human activity altered the habitat. Seashore salt grass, common along ocean beaches, still grows near several springs. Salt-encrusted mud flats harbor tiny spike rushes ringed with narrow- leafed

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