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Now that's deep

The Kansas Underground Salt Museum provides an insider experience.

September 23, 2007|Cynthia Mines | Special to The Times

Hutchinson, Kan.

The nation's longest grain elevator -- nearly half a mile long -- loomed nearby as I pulled into the parking lot of the new Kansas Underground Salt Museum. Elevators had been on my mind lately, but not the kind that held grain.

To reach the underground museum -- located 650 feet below the surface in salt deposits formed millions of years ago -- I had to ride an elevator that descended 65 stories into the earth.

After donning a hard hat and slinging a portable breathing device (required in case of fire) over my shoulder, I watched an introductory video with about a dozen others on the 3:30 p.m. tour. We then waited while the double-decker elevator purged itself of employees of Underground Vaults & Storage, a company housed in the salt mines since 1959.

Because the mines provide near-perfect conditions -- constant temperature, low humidity, no insects and no threat of tornadoes, earthquakes, floods or fire -- companies from around the world ship their valuables here for storage.

The film and TV industries are big clients, sending such treasures as the original film reels of "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz" to central Kansas for safekeeping.

After our group entered the elevator, the tour guide closed the heavy doors, and we stood silently until one man noted it was the "darkest dark" he'd ever seen. I nonchalantly practiced yoga breathing.

Several seconds later, the elevator lurched into action, and we started down. The guide informed us the ride would take only a minute and 15 seconds, then began tossing out facts to distract us. One perky tidbit -- "We are going down farther than the St. Louis arch goes up into the air" -- was not particularly reassuring.

"Couldn't you use generators for light in the elevator?" I inquired.

"Probably," a female employee answered, "but we want to simulate what a miner feels like."

I already felt like a miner, with my hard hat (though it didn't have a light on it) and portable breathing device.

When the elevator settled and the doors opened, a cavernous space with glittering salt crystal walls appeared, and I realized this constantly 68-degree haven was a superb place to escape the heat and humidity of a Kansas summer.

A tram picked us up for a ride through the 100,000-square-foot museum in the salt mine labyrinth. We learned that two businesses continue to operate within the underground salt beds: Underground Vaults & Storage, which protects 7 million containers from every state and 23 countries, and Hutchinson Salt Co., which excavates 500,000 tons of rock salt each year.

The idea for a museum was conceived after repeated requests for tours from adults who remembered taking school tours of the mine as children. Carey Salt Co. had offered the tours until 1965, when federal regulations became too prohibitive. The two businesses joined forces with the Reno County Historical Society, and planning began in 1998 to create the $10-million museum, the only one of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. To get ideas, board members visited underground salt mine museums in Poland and Germany.

Hutchinson -- whose nickname is Salt City -- became known for the salt deposits that stretch beneath it in 1887, when a con artist dug a well and poured a barrel of oil into it in an attempt to boost the value of real estate he was trying to sell. The locals weren't fooled and ran the guy out of town, but, unbeknown to the swindler, he had discovered the first salt beds west of the Mississippi River.

Most of the museum is in parts of the mine that were excavated in the 1940s and 1950s. Exhibits, photo murals, videos and vintage mining equipment complemented the tour guide's narration. We filled small souvenir bags with salt chunks, and the tour ended at the Salt Cellar Gift Shop, where Salt of the Earth T-shirts and other salt and Kansas souvenirs could be purchased.

As I sampled salt water taffy, I surveyed an area that had been carved into rentable meeting rooms. Ironically, being so far underground turned out to be calming, a tranquil place, insulated deep in the Earth and far from cellphone reception. I breathed much easier on the ride up.




Kansas Underground Salt Museum,


(866) 755-3450,

Tours are 1 1/2 to two hours and cost $13.50 for adults and $8.50 for kids (ages 4 to 12). Children younger than 4 are not permitted in the mine. Several tours are offered each day, but reservations are recommended because some sell out. The museum is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 1 to 6 p.m. Sundays.

Cracow Salt Works Museum

Wieliczka, Poland


Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, May to September. Tickets $1.10 to $1.50. The museum, located in the Salt Works Castle and in the 700-year-old Wieliczka Salt Mine, demonstrates the development of salt mining in Europe, starting in the late 13th century.

German Salt Museum

L√ľneburg, Germany


Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Fridays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, May to September. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, October to April. The museum and historic buildings chronicle the history of salt works dating back to the Middle Ages. Admission $5.55.

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