Taking life with a grain of salt – Hutchinson, KS
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?