Monday, April 27, 2009

Kansas Underground Salt Museum in Hutchinson

Going 650 feet underground is not something most folks think about on an average day, but in Hutchinson it's entirely possible. The Kansas Underground Salt Museum (KUSM) is the only museum in the western hemisphere where you can go into a salt mine.

This past weekend when I was volunteering I intended to tweet the experience at, so people would have a sense of what it was like, but without cell phone signal underground it wasn't really possible. Greg and I have been planning a story about the Kansas Underground Salt Museum for a year and a half. He took these photos in November of 2007.

I decided to use the story to give you a sense of what it's like to take a tour at KUSM. Of course, nothing compares to experiencing it yourself, but maybe this will whet your appetite.

Your visit starts with a safety orientation and you’ll be issued some safety gear - a hard hat and breathing apparatus. You'll be happy to know that the safety gear has never been used.

Then you line up to get in the German made, double decker elevator that holds about 30 people.

It was originally used in a silver mine and will transport you underground where you’ll emerge into a long, hollowed out salt corridor.

Immediately you’ll notice the salt has layers. These form because of dry and wet times when the salt formation was being laid down. The miners use those layers to keep the mine level.

You’re now surrounded by material that predates dinosaurs. There was a mass extinction at this time – about 270 million years ago – and where you’re standing was an ocean. To give you an idea of the depth, bear in mind that 80 feet of sea water makes about 1 foot of salt.

Two things to notice right away when you get off the elevator. Straight ahead are the restrooms. These are modern engineering marvels because everything has to flush 650 feet. Up. There are two holding tanks underground, one holds water and one holds sewage. The sewage is evacuated into the sewer system overnight when there are no visitors because it’s very noisy.

The other is a giant piece of salt. You'll have time to inspect it more closely after the tour.

You’ll board a tram for your “dark ride,” going underneath Airport Road, which you may have driven to arrive at the museum. You’ll travel down the corridor to an area that's more narrow. This is the only area that was blasted specifically for the museum. On the right wall you'll see where the miners who did that Dec. 20, 2004 left their mark, an old mining tradition.

As the ride continues, you can see some of the antique mining equipment. There are some cars that used to haul salt from the mine. Each of these cars held 3 ½ tons of salt and took 90 minutes to load by hand. The metal ones held four tons.

Explosives were always carried in a separate car, that had taller sides on it to protect from sparks. Now miners use a conveyer system to move the salt, but at one time they used these trains and would move the track as the mine face moved.

The Carey Salt Company opened in 1923 and had the shorted railroad in the country. You may have noticed the train engine topside, before you came into the building. That’s one of only three GE No. 2 engines ever built. It ran between 1928 and 1963, moving the six miles between the mine and the salt evaporation plant. The tracks were used for another 20 years.

Along the dark ride, your guide will point out various items of interest. One of the first things you'll see are a ribbed wall. Each rib is about eight feet deep and represents how deep into the wall they blasted.

Above you are ridges from a machine called the continuous miner. It is a huge piece of equipment bought by the museum and Underground Vaults and Storage. It is made for coal mining, as is most of the equipment used here. No equipment is made specifically for salt mining.

You’ll see places where the walls have a different texture and the salt is very crystal clear. This is recrystalized salt, where water got back into the salt deposit and basically washed out the impurities, which you can see below the white part.

You can occasionally find a piece of salt with a bubble of water in it. It’s this very phenomenon that allowed scientists to discover a 250 million year old bacteria in a New Mexico salt mine. Those same scientists have found DNA in some of the samples from Hutchinson, but it's too soon to know exactly what that means.

Miners had two big concerns - light and air. They used to work with the equivalent of a flashlight, which barely makes a dent in the darkness. In some mines, they used mules underground, including nearby Lyons and Kanopolis, and they would eventually go blind from the lack of light. Mules were never used in the Hutchinson mine.

Air flow in the mine was controlled by "gob walls." You'll see some constructed of dynamite boxes, filled with salt. The first wall you see is two boxes deep and has a purpose. Jute curtains were also used, and the modern version is the plastic you see here and there.

You'll pass under a large deposit of sylvite. It's quite possible there's a large piece of recrystallized salt above it.

You'll drive by three floor heaves. Salt is plastic and very heavy. Imagine a Lincoln log being pressed in to clay. The clay would rise up around it. The same thing is happening in a floor heave. The "overburden" is heavy enough it's causing the floor to rise up like clay would.

In the middle floor heave is a cut out of a miner demonstrating the floor heave is about two feet, but the ceiling is still nine feet tall. This man volunteers for the museum on occasion. At the third one is a 1950s photo of miners standing where a ceiling sag has fallen. You'll also see the scaling bars used to pull down salt that is loose.

When you turn a corner, you'll see what's left of a truck the miners used at one time. It ran on a 300 foot electrical cord. It's actually a conglomeration of parts from various vehicles.

The hoist that used by the miners is much smaller than the one you came down in. Anything that wouldn't fit in it had to be dangled underneath it, or taken apart and reassembled underground. That includes all the massive equipment you'll see in the walking part of the tour.

Miners did not remove things from the mine. It made no sense to use the energy or the time on the hoist to do so. They would reuse them as long as possible, and then abandon them where they were.

Salt mines have what is called a “closure rate,” meaning the rooms and corridors mined out are slowly closing in on themselves. "Slowly,” is an understatement. In the Hutchinson mine, the closure rate is 2/1000 to 3/1000 of an inch a year. That means it would take 500 years for it to close one inch. At one point, the federal government looked into storing nuclear waste in the salt mines, but the closure rate was way too small to make it feasible.

The Atomic Energy Commission came to Hutchinson in 1950, looking for a place to store toxic waste. They used this device to measure the closure rate for ten years. But it was too slow here, so the toxic waste was taken to the salt mines in New Mexico instead.

Carey was the first mine to go all non-emissions and use bio diesel for equipment. They also used electric power. Today they run on bio fuel made of soy or electric power. The tram you’ll ride is battery powered, too. You will get a chance to stop at a salt pile for a small souvenir of your trip underground.

Prior to 1964, visitors came underground regularly. There were special cars for visitors that took them on tours of the mine. Below is one that would have taken school children on tours.

The workers rode in a car called a "mantrip" that was a little less elaborate. The miners used to refer to the cars as “mules” on occasion, which added to the confusion about the animals never being used here like they were in other area mines.

In 1964 Carey sold the mine and visiting underground stopped, until the museum opened in 2007. This is still a working mine today. The museum is about 1-2 miles from the active mine face.

In the exhibit area you can see some of the massive equipment they use. Remember each one had to be brought underground through a shaft much smaller than the one you came down in.

One of them is the undercutter. This machine allows miners to cut a groove out along the floor of the salt wall they’re getting ready to mine. If they didn’t do this, the salt wouldn’t fall, even with dynamite. Salt is so hard they can’t nail or screw into it without a nail ram set.

They used to mine 40 foot pillars and 50 foot rooms. Today they mine 20 foot pillars and 40 foot rooms. Eight feet is blasted at a time. They use the red lines as markers.

There are 67 miles of tunnels here, and 970 acres that have been mined.

During your visit underground you're surrounded by salt in every direction. About 500,000 tons of salt are taken from the mine every year, about 1000 tons every day they mine. Each blast brings down 300-600 tons. Salt sells for about $16 a ton.

The museum is still finding things they will want to use as exhibits in the future. For example, The atomic energy commission had a tent and equipment underground. When they left, they left everything there, as is customary. When things are brought topside that have been underground for a long period of time, they tend to disintegrate because of the changes in humidity.

Salt is used not only in food, but also in products like plastics, chlorine bleach, pharmaceuticals and lots of manufacturing. More than 70% of the salt mined here is used on roads, with Chicago being the biggest customer. Those buildings you see around cities sometimes where they store salt, that are shaped like piles, are built that way because salt has an “inclination angle” and builds that sort of pile naturally.

The salt you eat on the table is “brine evaporated,” which is a different process than what is happening in this mine.

In the exhibit area you can explore the exhibit about Dr. Vreeland's research into the
oldest living thing on Earth.

You’ll also see items from Underground Vaults and Storage. This unique business stores everything from dental records to movies and TV shows. The constant temperature underground makes it perfect for delicate items.

On display is a newspaper from the time of Lincoln's death...

James Dean's shirt from his last movie...

At the moment you can see some Hollywood items on display in a special exhibit, including Clooney's Batman suit and a prop from the Jack Frost movie.

You'll end up in the gift shop and when you're finished can either walk back to the hoist or catch a ride on a tram headed that way.

The Kansas Underground Salt Museum is a work in progress, so plan another visit soon.

These photos were taken in November of 2007 by
Greg Holmes when we went on a special tour, specifically to take photos and notes for a story. Subsequently, I was there during the blogger fam tour and have also volunteered at the museum.

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barbara said...

Very interesting!!! And a great job of reporting about it! Thank you!

Patsy Terrell said...

I love it down there!