Kait Dewey, a guide at the Kansas Underground Salt Museum, talked with students about an area where miners signed their names after blasting through in 2004.
KEITH MYERS • Kansas City Star ,
Weekend Away: Kansas museum is worth its salt
- Article by: LISA GUTIERREZ
- Kansas City Star
- January 25, 2013 - 1:57 PM
It’s a 90-second ride to the belly of the Earth. Down, down, metal clanking; down, down, gears groaning, the elevator squeezed its way through the shaft. Everyone’s wearing hard hats with emergency breathing appartuses slung around the neck.
And just like that, a guide pulled the heavy metal doors of the hoist open, and the group stepped into a lighted lobby. “Good morning! My name is Patty,” said the perky, white-haired woman waiting for us. “Welcome to the Kansas Underground Salt Museum. You are now 650 feet below the surface of the Earth.”
More than 400,000 visitors have made this trip since May 2007, when the museum opened in mined-out caverns of the 920-acre Hutchinson Salt Co. in Hutchinson, Kan. Shortly thereafter the museum was named one of the eight wonders of Kansas.
The Permian Sea covered the ground here 275 million years ago, and left behind a giant swath of salt — 30 trillion tons. Salt has been mined continuously in this spot since 1923, when the Carey Salt Co. (today it is Hutchinson Salt) set up operations in one of the world’s biggest deposits of rock salt. Salt is still mined on the same level as the museum for use in animal feed, tanning hides and de-icing roads.
The museum floors are made with salt, too, which is why drinks are not allowed in the mine. Don’t want to melt those floors.
From the get-go, you know that this adventure through the bowels of the Earth is no trip to Disney World. You can’t even go underground without first watching a safety film explaining the 3-pound “self-rescuer” you have to wear at all times, like the miners.
The museum tells the story of salt mining in Hutchinson. Videos and exhibits show how the salt is extracted, crushed and moved to the hoist that carries it to the surface. The process was backbreaking, pick-and-shovel type of labor until the mine lost workers to World War II and began to mechanize the process.
Before the conveyor belts used today, the salt was hauled through the mine on train cars. Almost 5,000 feet of that track was dug up, cut up, bent and built into a railroad that carries visitors into dark corners of the mine.
Those dark corners can be explored on the Salt Mine Express, an open-air train. Before boarding, the conductor told visitors the rules: Keep body limbs inside the car at all times, and do not raise your hands above your hard hat.
“There are places out there where you can actually touch the ceiling, you can actually touch the walls,” Mr. Engineer said. “But we don’t want you to do that because the salt can be sharp, it can cut. And salt in a wound does not feel very good.”
Spotlights activated by motion sensors light up displays along the way.
On the museum’s ominously titled Dark Ride, the tram stopped in a room mined of its salt during the ’40s and ’50s, and the guide announced: “I am going to stop and turn the lights off just for a moment, just to give you another experience with mine darkness. On the count of three I’m going to turn the lights off.
“One. Two. Three.”
She flipped off the headlights. The darkness was all-consuming and disorienting.
Then she pulled the tram next to a pile of rock salt and invited visitors to take a piece home. Just don’t climb on the pile, she warned. “Find yourself a souvenir that’s millions of years old!”
Yes, there are Hollywood costumes displayed at the Salt Museum, including the costume George Clooney wore as the Caped Crusader in the 1997 movie “Batman & Robin.” They’re kind of a tease, a glimpse of the countless Hollywood treasures stored not far away in Underground Vaults, with 50 acres that are off-limits to the general public, a real bummer for Hollywood buffs.
Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. all hide things at Underground Vaults. It’s a veritable Fort Knox safe from tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and all manner of mischief and mayhem, where the 68-degree temperature and 45 percent humidity are ideal for preserving paper and film.
The Underground Vaults folks are loath to reveal specifics about their clients. But over the years they have shared that they are the keepers of such historic movies as “Ben-Hur” and “Star Wars,” old silent movies, every episode of “M*A*S*H” and the original film negative of “The Wizard of Oz.”
At the end of your visit you’ll have to take a ride back to the surface in the noisy hoist, another 650 feet to the top. In the gift shop, you’ll find salt-themed souvenirs: lamps made of salt, shot glasses, plastic miner’s helmets and, of course, salt shakers. And a T-shirt that reads: “I Survived the Shaft.”
IF YOU GO
Winter hours at the Kansas Underground Salt Museum: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Allow at least two hours for your visit. $14 adults; $12 seniors; $7.50 for ages 4-12. Dark Ride and tram ride cost extra. More info: undergroundmuseum.org, 1-866-755-3450
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