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Underground in Hutchinson

July 24th, 2012 at 11:36 am

 

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

UNDERGROUND IN HUTCHINSON

“Don’t pick or lick the walls” is one of the rules at the Kansas Underground Salt Museum in Hutchinson.

And I’m happy to report that I behaved. There were plenty of walls down there, but I did not lick any of them.

The Salt Museum in Hutchinson has been open for five years. Dave and I had often talked about going, but I kept putting it off. My comfort zone is on top of the land, not beneath it.

I didn’t like the idea of having 650 feet of salt and dirt over my head. That’s a lot of weight for a ceiling. When I’d factor in the concept of gravity, well, I just kept chickening out.

On a recent Saturday, Dave and I discussed possible destinations for a road trip. Since the mercury was at the top end of the thermometer, we tried to think of cool places to visit. It was I who suggested the Salt Museum. The mine temperature is a steady 68 degrees.

Above ground, we sat through a short film showing the use of safety equipment: a hardhat and a self-rescuer. The self-rescuer is a device to convert carbon monoxide to breathable carbon dioxide. However, we were assured that no one had needed to use the device in the 50 years that the miners had been carrying them here.

Down the elevator we went, traveling approximately 55 stories in less than 90 seconds. Although we apparently were traveling fast, I didn’t feel a sensation of speed.

This is a working mine, but the current mining area is a long way from the museum section. The mine is a big place, 1 ½ by 2 ½ miles.

The salt comes, of course, from the ancient seas that once covered Kansas. That old seabed keeps on giving. The rock salt that this mine produces helps keep us safe on the highways in the winter and it melts the ice for homemade ice cream in the summer. The salt is also used for livestock feed and industrial purposes.

The underground salt region stretches across most of Kansas and down into Oklahoma, northern Texas and eastern New Mexico.

This mine was opened in 1923 by the Carey Salt Company, a name familiar to many of us who grew up in Kansas. It is now operated by the Hutchinson Salt Company.

Exhibits underground describe how and when the salt deposits were formed and how the salt has been mined over the years.

Because the only way in and out of the mine is the small elevator, equipment has had to be disassembled before taking it down. And some of the machines are rather large. Rather than disassemble the equipment again to haul it back up, many of the tools and vehicles were simply abandoned in dark corners of the mine. And that gave the museum easy access to authentic pieces.

Vehicles include a truck, a tractor, mantrip cars and ore cars. One huge piece of mining equipment is a Joy Loader which shifted the salt-loading process from human hands to mechanical hands during the 1940s.

In the underground gallery, videos and pieces of equipment illustrate the current mining process. A long saw blade cuts a horizontal opening in the wall near the ground level so the salt has room to drop. Then holes are drilled in the wall for explosives. When the explosives are detonated, chunks of salt fall to the ground.

Dave and I opted for the full museum experience; we rode both the train and the dark ride through the mine. The dark ride went a little deeper into the mine and we were given a total black-out moment to show us the level of darkness to which eyes cannot adjust.

We had a good time underground in Hutch. Once I was in the mine, I felt fine. The air was good down there and it was cool. And, I didn’t lick one single wall, although I did lick the rock salt sample that we were allowed to pick up on the dark ride (and yes, it was very salty).

Copyright 2012 ~ Cheryl Unruh

columns, history, nature, traveling

  1. Flips
    July 24th, 2012 at 14:59 | #1

    “And I’m happy to report that I behaved. There were plenty of walls down there, but I did not lick any of them.”
    Thank you for the good laugh!!!! And the good story— we have 100’s of acres of underground storage– & businesses– etc etc etc– here in Branson, Mo. & also in Springfield, Mo. but no salt– they take out rock–

  2. July 24th, 2012 at 17:28 | #2

    Sounds like an incredible experience, Cheryl!

  3. July 25th, 2012 at 08:24 | #3

    I was getting a head cold the day we toured the mine and my sinuses completely cleared up while down there. They told me that they often got that comment from people who have allergies, as well. Love that photo at the top. Must have been a gorgeous sky day in Kansas!

  4. July 25th, 2012 at 14:31 | #4

    Boy Howdy! You struck a nerve I’ve long since forgotten about with this post. When I was a kid, about nine or ten (1949 or 50), our Wichita based 4-H club climbed aboard a TWA DC-3 and flew as a group to Hutchinson where we visited the salt mines for part of a day, then hopped back on the airplane for the ride home. I’d totally forgotten about that event until I saw your post today. Chuck

  5. July 28th, 2012 at 14:04 | #5

    I love that museum! And I love your photo. Beautiful.