Selling Kelp

It didn't go so well in Puget Sound

Last weekend I was up on Lopez Island to give a talk for the Lopez Island Historical Society and Museum, which gave me the opportunity to visit a spot I had researched for Homewaters, the Port Stanley Kelp Mill.

The lone hints of the kelp story along Port Stanley on Lopez Island. Concrete building was a fuel tank. Now, this is apparently a good place to find free goods, placed out by the present owner.

Rumor has it that it was a dark and stormy night in December 1911, when Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson submitted a report to Congress on fertilizer resources of the United States. His subject: potash, or what many fondly call potassium chloride. Historically produced by leaching wood ash, then boiling the ashes in a large iron pot to concentrate the solids—hence the name—potash’s primary use was in fertilizers but it also went into glass, soap, and acetone. What concerned Wilson, and possibly led to the cliched timing of his report, was the country’s sole dependence upon Germany for potash. If the Germans, who obtained their potash from salt deposits, ever decided to stop shipping potash, say because of war, not only would American farmers suffer but so would the British, who required acetone to make cordite, or smokeless gunpowder.

Desperate to find an American potash source, Wilson’s scientists scoured the land, investigating potash salts in the southwest desert basins and salt well brines across the land. They also performed novel and theoretical studies of potassium-rich minerals. But none would sate the need. The only high quality, cost effective source, according to Wilson’s experts, was kelp, which he valued at more than $240 million, just on the Pacific Coast.

One of Wilson’s scientists was UW botany professor George Burton Rigg. In 1911 and 1912, he surveyed and mapped the bull and giant kelp forests of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Before Rigg had completed his surveys and soon after he had started to announce some of his findings, such as Puget Sound’s annual kelp harvest could be worth as much as $175,000, stories began to appear in local newspapers announcing plans to build potash plants to exploit the local kelp. “There is every prospect that the enterprise in which they are to engage will constitute a big local industry,” wrote a Seattle Times reporter.

Two plants opened on the Sound, one at Port Townsend and the one memorialized by the road sign I saw at Port Stanley on Lopez Island. Unfortunately, far more successful potash plants were built in southern California. Neither of the local concerns amounted to much except a handful of jobs, and another rumor: that a German spy may have infiltrated the Port Stanley plant and killed a key employee. To this day, no one has been able to verify the story. When World War I ended, Germany began exporting potash again, crushing the dreams of kelp farmers in the Sound. 

At least the local plant owners could share their sorrows with fellow Puget Sound entrepreneurs whose plans to convert kelp to money had also failed. In 1906, UW professors Theodore C. Frye and Carl E. Magnusson developed a candied bull kelp called seatron, as a substitute for citron. Although the Seattle Times noted that seatron might “revolutionize the citron market of the world,” Frye and Magnusson’s product fostered no such transformation. For those unfamiliar with citron, it is perhaps best known for being slipped into fruitcake and the world apparently didn’t need a new fruitcake ingredient.

Last week, I was lucky enough to be interviewed by Iris Graville for the Lopez Island Historical Society and Museum. We had a great time and are going to do it again next week, over in Leavenworth for the Wenatchee River Institute, A Book for All Seasons, and NCW Libraries. We’ll be outside on September 29 at 5pm.

I still have 1st Edition copies of Homewaters for sale. The ones in stores are the 2nd printing, which is pretty cool, too.