Taking life with a grain of salt – Hutchinson, KS

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Well, we somehow managed to get out of Dodge without facing any gunfights on the streets, although Steve was afraid there might be a little gunplay with me after his moment with the saloon girl.  But it all worked out, and down the road we went to Halstead, Kansas!

We find underground activities to be fun and educational.  Be it in caves to admire formations, or in a subterranean river or in copper or gold mines, we always jump at a chance to learn and be amazed by these kinds of excursions.

Strataca

Surrounded by walls of salt!

In Hutchinson, known as “Salt City,”  a portion of the Hutchinson Salt Mine was opened to the public several years ago to tell the salt story in the form of an underground museum.  Salt was found here accidentally in 1887, when folks drilling for oil to increase land sales discovered salt instead.  The salt bed  beneath the plains is approximately 400 feet thick and stretches 150 miles by 200 miles, containing something like 30 trillion tons of salt.

 

 

Strataca, formerly known as the Kansas Underground Salt Museum, is located 650′ beneath the plains of Kansas.  It exists within the active Hutchinson Salt Company mine, which began operation in 1923 as Carey Salt Company.  There are over a dozen salt mines in the U.S., but only here is access given to the public – and they brag about it.  We were intrigued by this unique experience and paid for two additional tours – the Dark Ride and the Safari Shuttle – in addition to seeing the museum and taking a short tram ride.

Strataca double decker hoist

Waiting for our ride to the bottom

Our trek to the museum 650′ below began with a ride on a double-decker hoist and was a pitch-black descent.  For anyone with claustrophobia, the 90-second ride down in the dark is more than enough reason to skip this adventure (they will turn on a small light if you insist).  When we arrived at the bottom we noticed how different this tour was from others we had taken.

The first thing we noticed as the docent was telling us the rules of the mine was that something resembling snow was falling all around us.  He explained that it was “salt hair”, tiny tufts of salt that fall off the ceiling only happens when the hoist arrives at the bottom of the mine during humid months.  The humidity brought down the shaft moistens little patches of salt and it falls as fine flakes from the ceiling.  It stops falling after a few minutes, then the process starts again when the next hoist arrives.  Cool!

We learned that this mine implements the “room and pillar” mining method, where salt is removed in a checkerboard pattern.  This creates uniform large square open areas that alternate with square pillars of un-mined material 40′ thick, left intact to support the ceiling over the corridors and rooms.

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Totally cool place, and I mean cool – it was almost 90º outside, but it remains a constant 68º down here!

Strataca

The Narrows – this section was blasted out in 2004 to connect the mined areas with the lift shaft

Most of the ceiling was as flat as the prairies above.  We did not feel closed in, as the area looked a lot like a dimly lit parking garage – quiet and with plenty of room to roam about.

Strataca

Main gallery with a museum area, and of course a gift shop

We wandered through the galleries that tell the story of salt mining and the geological history of the area.  We learned how these vast salt caverns under Hutchinson are also used to store over seven million documents and items for companies requiring safe, long-term storage at a constant temperature and humidity.

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Learning about the mining equipment that has been used through the years

We read that once in a while pure salt crystals are found in the mine.  These are formed when fresh water intrudes, then subsequently the salt and sediment liquefy.  This process forces the heavier sediments to settle, leaving pure salt behind.  The salt crystals are usually mined along with the rest of the material, but the chunk below was saved as a display.

Strataca

The only salt we were allowed to touch – a 6,000 pound crystal beauty found in 2004

Salt Stripes at Strataca

The mine walls (this one is in the women’s restroom) are well-defined horizontal lines of salt intermixed with sediment

The salt mine has a natural temperature of 70°F while the average relative humidity remains an ideal 45%.  What a great place to store valuable documents!  In a secured area within the mine is the storage facility for Underground Vaults and Storage, a company that offers 1,660,000 sq. ft. of storage for millions of items.  Access is obviously restricted, but a display showed what it looks like.  The docent told us that the master prints for Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and thousands of other Hollywood films are stored there.

Underground Vault and Storage

Underground Vault and Storage display

After perusing the various displays, we took the brand-new hour-long Safari Shuttle ride, followed by the 1/2 hour Dark Ride.  The Safari Shuttle took us into areas that were mined some 55 years ago, and left virtually untouched since then.  With flashlights they supplied, we went through a maze of chambers beyond the museum area to learn many more interesting facts about the mining environment.

We saw trash, abandoned dynamite boxes and other artifacts that had been left behind.  “Everything that comes down here, stays down here,” the docent said.  That’s because it’s simply too expensive and labor-intensive to take things back out of the mine.  Every machine here had to be cut into little pieces to come down the 5′ x 4′ hoist, then welded back together in the mine.  Amazing!

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Retro-trash left from the 1950’s

Naturally occurring geologic formations were pointed out, such as this salt crystal.  We’re only seeing the mined face of it, but it could be hundreds of feet long.

Unmined salt crystal

Strataca

A re-assembled and modified underground vehicle.  No doors, windows or roof needed down here!

This life-size photo shows mining inspectors looking at the sagging ceiling and raised floor in a chamber.  Salt is pliable, like plastic, and will slowly sag before it breaks.  Some floors buckle due to the incredible weight of the columns pressing down from all sides.

Kansas Underground Salt Museum

Near the end of our tour we stopped at a pile of salt crystals and got to pick up small salt crystal souvenirs to take home.

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“No licking or picking” allowed, except at this little pile

Streetcar Underground Museum

I finally found one I like!

The salt mined here is not for human consumption.  The 500,000 tons mined each year is used for industrial purposes – 70% for de-icing roadways, and the remaining 30% used for tanning cattle hides with large chunks relegated to duty as cattle salt licks.

Kansas Underground salt mine

Piles of rock salt

Camping near Hutchinson (in Halstead) gave us a good opportunity to visit this interesting underground museum.  It’s also a great place to be on a hot day, or if a tornado happens by!  We really enjoyed the experience of learning about salt and how it’s mined.  Who knew there’s a huge salt bed beneath Kansas?

 

Next up:  The Flint Hills



 

 

 

 

 

24 thoughts on “Taking life with a grain of salt – Hutchinson, KS

  1. I love this post and have saved the info on my travel bucket list of interesting places to visit. The prose in your travel blog really flows these days, the photographs are beautiful, and the content is so interesting. You always make me want to visit the places you describe in such detail. I even learn a few things from your posts when you write about places I already know and love.

    Keep traveling you guys and I look forward to your next adventure.

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  2. I had no idea that there are such interesting sights to be found in Kansas. Thanks for changing my opinion of this state. You two always find the coolest things to do!

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  3. I would NEVER have guessed what your header photo is if you hadn’t told us. 🙂 You guys find such an incredible array of interesting (and sometimes slightly bizarre) but always fun experiences. I’m glad you share them with us, because I don’t think I’ll be going down in that salt mine, especially when I read the part about the floor and ceiling being “pliable.” Very cool that Hollywood keeps valuable film originals there.

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    • When we learned it is the only underground museum in the US and we are just close by we decided to go and so glad we did.

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  4. A great tour! One that I will add to our list for KS. We did a tour of a salt mine in Germany. No hoist for us; we donned safety gear and went in on a train not that dissimilar a children’s train ride. It was fascinating to learn a bit about how salt is mined.

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    • Yup, this one and the one you went were on the only list of three underground museum. Very cool tour indeed.

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  5. There is a huge mine like that under Detroit, Michigan. I grew up in Allen Park, the western end of the mine. We could hear the blasting as a dull rumble. Thanks for showing this, Mona Liza!

    Jim

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  6. We live in Kansas and had never heard of this salt mine until we were thinking up interesting weekend trips for us and the kids (11 & 13). We did this mine and the Sedgewick Zoo. Everyone REALLY LOVED both tours – even the teenager! 😉 The salt mine was just so interesting, and the Zoo was an unexpected gem – very unassuming from the front but very close and personal with the animals. The weekend was a win! So glad you are showing off the treasures of Kansas…it really is a lovely place to live!

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  7. Awesome adventure you two! That was one huge and beautiful crystal you had the chance to wrap your arms around. I am taking my time and slowly back tracking your travels to see everything I missed…

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  8. WOW…what a unique place. I would never have thought of going on this tour. Thanks for the info. Really neat place.

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  9. You guys do find the most interesting things to tour. What a HUGE salt crystal – 6000 pounds good grief!!. I never think that my little grains are mined and start out huge.

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  10. This looks like a really cool experience. The salt hair is bizarre! Thanks for taking me there!

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  11. Very interesting post MonaLiza, especially for us. We have one of the largest salt mines in the northeast just a few miles from our house in Geneseo, NY. They used to give tours, but no more. It was run safely for over 100 years until a new mega company bought it, used “new” technology to get more salt by narrowing those pillars and found the error of their ways. It collapsed dramatically, filling people’s wells with salt, draining part of the Genesee River and causing deep valleys in otherwise flat farm fields. A serious disaster.
    They’ve since closed it and started a new one nearby using the “old”, tried and true methods again.
    Thanks for showing us what it would have looked like had we seen it “before”!

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    • That is one sad story. Are the wells still salty there? We grab the chance when we learned that they are the only ones that have a salt museum open to the public.

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  12. I had no idea there was a salt mine in Kansas. That is great they can use it to store important documents and films. Have a great time in Kansas. I have 10 weeks off this summer. I went to a Beach Boys concert last night at Alameda County Fair. Have fun!

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    • We did not know either until we start researching the area. Glad we made it there and share our experience.

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  13. I did read about visiting the salt mine since we were so close, but their website really made it sound so claustrophobic I didn’t want to give it a try. I wish I had written to you and asked how it was. This would have been fine for me…darn! After all, if I can do a dark cave with a flashlight with no one around, I can do this! Oh, well, I know we will make this journey back east again so next time I will have it on the agenda:) I did see this listed as one of the Eight Wonders in Kansas during our last visit but we were further north. I love that huge hunk of salt you are hugging:) How pretty! Your photos came out great with the limited light. What a very cool experience!! Sorry we missed it.

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    • Since you traverse east to west, perhaps when you cross this way on a good weather you will stop by. It was not really that bad, caves are more claustrophobic than the museum.

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