Archive for Friday, August 11, 2006

Kansans get sneak peek of underground salt mine tour

August 11, 2006


— Ruth McNish made no qualms about being claustrophobic.

Huddled with a dozen other senior citizens in an elevator dropping 50 stories in 80 seconds, McNish asked if her friend, 89-year-old Winnie Barker of Clay Center, really had to go into the underground salt mine.

"Yes, I do," Barker said without hesitating.

"Well, it's only 500 feet down," McNish told herself reassuringly.

A fellow rider corrected her: 650 feet.

"Oh, that did nothing to help my fear," McNish said. "You can tell what a brave bunch we are."

The two women were among more than 80 members of the Friendship Club in North Central Kansas who recently toured the site of the future Kansas Underground Salt Museum. They were among the first Kansans to tour the mine in more than four decades.

Once it opens, the museum will allow visitors to see the same sights that hundreds of elderly and middle-aged Kansans saw when they were schoolchildren.

The museum will highlight one of the world's largest underground salt mines and teach the history of the mineral used for everything from seasoning our eggs to melting the snow on our streets.

Hutchinson leaders had planned to open the museum in 2004. But they had to wait on the state's approval of $4.8 million in sales tax revenue bonds that will pay for an aboveground visitors center, parking lot and utilities.

That work can now proceed.

Already more than 4,000 people have signed up for tours of the underground site, despite the fact there's no aboveground visitors center, Johnson said.

Large groups such as the Friendship Club are welcome, Johnson said, if they book in advance and are willing to pay $11 or more per person to tour the mine.

Exhibits already are being built underground. Trams will help tourists travel to the more than two dozen galleries, each devoted to the history of salt.

The temperature 650 feet underground is 68 degrees with 40 percent humidity. No insects or rodents invade the miles of cavernous spaces. Nothing corrodes. Floods can't threaten.

As visitors step off the elevator, they learn they are in the dried remnants of a huge inland sea that was oxygen-starved and lifeless, thus creating some of the purest salt in the world.

Layers of salt and slate line the walls.

"You've just stepped back 280 million years in time," Johnson told the tour group.

Visitors learn about the explosives and drills used to blast salt from cavern walls.

The salt deposit in central Kansas is more than 400 feet thick and stretches into New Mexico, making it one of the largest in the world.

Each year, more than 300,000 tons of rock salt are mined from the 67 miles of caverns.

Visitors see salt walls and hear the crunch of salt underneath their feet. Lick your lips and they taste salty.

"You can lick the walls if you like, but there is no guarantee that somebody before you hasn't licked the wall," said Sheri Gaskins, the museum's director of education.

The trams take visitors past salt mining equipment and portions of a three-mile-long conveyor belt that carries chunks of salt.

Miners still carve cavernous rooms underground - 50 feet wide and 300 feet deep, Gaskins said. In the summer, four rooms are mined daily. During the winter - the peak season for salt - the number reaches 14.

When it opens, Gaskins said, the new museum's space will be perfect for weddings, proms and formal dinners.

It also will offer the ultimate corporate getaway: "Cell phones don't work down here," she said.

Members of the Friendship Club said they were glad to tour the site, even before it opened.

"You just don't realize what goes on before you use your table salt," said Marcella Dolezal of Belleville. "People travel all over the world to have something to see like this, and here it is in our own state."


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