Mark Twain wrote of traveling by stagecoach on the Oregon Trail. One of the fascinating sights he talked about was a dry lake he called “Alkali” or “Soda Lake.” He saw these after passing Independence Rock, located in what is now Alcova, Wyoming.
The stagecoach driver informed him that Mormons traveled from Great Salt Lake City with wagons to shovel pure saleratus from the dry lake. The driver had seen them haul away two wagon loads a few days before Twain passed by. The Mormons sold the drug for twenty-five cents a pound, a nice profit for a product that cost only their labor.
Carried by the wind, the white powder blew into the travelers’ faces, irritating their eyes. Some early pioneers described the strong odor as smelling like lime or having an “acrid caustic smell.”
The shallow lakes were sometimes dry but might not be depending on the season. The water could be poisonous; animals that refused to stay away from it sometimes sickened and died from drinking it.
Saleratus, or bicarbonate of soda, is a white substance we know as baking soda. Bakers use it as a leavening agent for biscuits, pancakes, cakes, and cookies.
When mixed with water, sodium bicarbonate may treat heartburn and acid indigestion but this comes with a caution: don’t use on a regular basis as an excess may cause Alkalosis.
Make a paste of baking soda and water to relieve pain of burns, insect bites, and stings. This paste also treats the itch caused by allergic reactions to poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac—or add a cup of baking soda to bath water.
Baking soda has been used in toothpaste for years and my mother used baking soda and water to brush her teeth when growing up.
What Twain called “Soda Lake” is now known as Playa Lake or Saleratus Lake and is easily seen from Independence Rock.
-Sandra Merville Hart
“Saleratus Lake,” The Wyoming State Historical Society, 2016/09/27 http://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/saleratus-lake.
“Sodium bicarbonate,” The Free Dictionary by Farlex, 2016/09/27 http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/saleratus.
“Sodium bicarbonate,” Wikipedia, 2016/09/27, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sodium_bicarbonate.
Twain, Mark. Roughing it, Penguin Books, 1985.