…to the Earth Below

After the highs and lows of the Cosmosphere that afternoon we went even lower. Six hundred and fifty feet lower, to be exact.

Hutchinson is home to the Kansas Underground Salt Museum. Located deep beneath the surface are salt deposits that cover about 920 acres. These were discovered back in 1887 when an unscrupulous businessman was putting oil in wells. While he was run out of town (to Chicago, maybe?), the upside of his shenanigans was that salt was found in them there prairies.

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The museum is located in a portion of the mine that’s no longer used for salt excavation, so Joanna and I joined a group of about 13 others and we all packed into the hoist for the descent deep into the earth. To get an idea of how deep, take the Daley Center and turn it upside down. As we plunged at the speedy rate of about 450 feet a minute we traveled through rock and aquifer and salt while a docent talked about what we could expect. With no lights in the car we were engulfed in pitch black until about fifty feet from our destination. The first sign we were getting close was a beeping sound, and then light began to sift into the crowded car.

After we disembarked our new docent Travis introduced us to the several hundred feet of stuff that was now above us. This included a couple hundred feet of rock, about 300 feet of salt, and in between over a hundred feet of aquifer. That last part is filled with water, which means that when the first miners dug shafts they had to send divers down to shore up the sides. The shaft we came down was new so they were able to use liquid nitrogen to freeze it and then chip it out.

He took us through a section that was recently blasted, relatively speaking, to make room for the museum, and then showed us a photo of the original car used to transport people, equipment, and salt to and from the mine. It was so small we quickly understood the reasoning behind the saying “what goes in the mine, stays in the mine”. Throughout the museum are hunks of machinery that can never see the light of day. Not only wouldn’t it be worth it to take them apart and transport them to the surface, they’re so saturated with salt they’d instantly turn to rust the minute they hit normal humidity.

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The mine has a nearly constant humidity of 40% and temperature of 68°. In addition to making it really comfortable on a hot summer day, it also means it’s perfect for storing things. Underground Vaults & Storage keeps things like corporate and medical records, film reels, movie props and historical documents in the space. I agree with Travis that the coolest thing down there is the New York Herald from the day after Lincoln was assassinated. Their display kind of feels like a giant ad, but since the museum is a non-profit and UV&S helped pay for the new mineshaft and elevator I suppose they’re allowed.

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While the museum is the first and only of its kind in this half of the world, it’s not the first time tourists have been allowed down there. It was originally the Carey Salt Mine, and as Travis said, Mr. Emerson Carey was so proud of it that he invited children to tour it. One of the ladies in our group had been one of those children back in 1948!

The tram we took through the mine on the Dark Ride was a little more open than the cars they used back then, but safety precautions are a bit stricter now. The Dark Ride is an add-on to the museum tour, and I highly recommend taking it. Our guide, Becky, took us deep into the dark, cool, cavernous space. We saw a 1932 Chevy with a Dodge steering wheel that had been jerry-rigged to be electric, since exhaust fumes in an enclosed space are not a good idea. The cord was 300 feet long and for recreation the miners would gun the car until it came unplugged. Some were considerate and pushed it back in place. Others would leave it where it died, and that’s where it is today.

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We also saw stacks of empty dynamite boxes wedged into holes to funnel the air. Without proper airflow the mines could be a mightily inhospitable place. Over time special curtains were devised to replace the boxes. Salt mining is back-breaking enough without adding that load to their list of chores.

There was much more we learned, including why the floor and ceilings sometimes heave and buckle and why you don’t have to worry about it and why they don’t store nuclear waste like some other salt mines. We sat in pitch black – again. We pawed through a pile of salt to take home a few of our own gems, complete with instructions on how to preserve them once we were topside.

We also learned that Chicago is their biggest customer. Our road salt for the winter months comes directly from this mine. This year when our city streets are passable after inches of snow have fallen I’ll know exactly who to thank.

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