Down in the Salt Mine

September 2, 2014

Labor Day weekend 2014 found Wendy and me 650 feet below Hutchinson, Kansas, touring part of a salt mine. It was the highlight of our first out-of-town trip in my new 2014.5 Toyota Camry XLE, which replaced Princess, my 2001 Toyota Camry LE.

Trip to Strataca (click map for slideshow)

Princess replaced by Silver Fox

Silver Fox

I was sad to have to let Princess go, as she was the best car I ever had. But with over 236,000 miles on her and repairs this month exceeding her bluebook value, it was time for me to move on. I drained the car fund I’ve been building for four years and, with some help from my always-generous parents, traded Princess in for Silver Fox. Yes, the new car is silver instead of white, and I picked that name since the car reflects my mid-life desire for some flashy luxuries, such as leather heated seats and a moonroof.

The most useful new luxury is linking my iPhone wirelessly to the car’s sound system via Bluetooth. That is more convenient than the wired option I installed in my old car back in February 2012, since the phone automatically links with the car when I get close to it, allowing me to control the music on the car’s dashboard touchscreen and conduct hands-on-the-wheel phone calls. I like the latter feature, since avoidance of visual-manual interactions with a phone when driving improves safety. The car has its own voice recognition system, but even after completing its voice training, I found the iPhone’s Siri to be far more accurate in interpreting my commands. I still keep my iPhone mounted high on the dash with a holder that attaches to an air vent, since I still rely upon its TomTom GPS app for navigation, and Toyota doesn’t yet have Apple CarPlay.

Oh, and another nice feature of Silver Fox is the ease with which it passes slower vehicles on two-lane highways. Its 4-cylinder engine produces 178 horsepower versus the 136 hp engine in Princess, while still getting highway gas mileage in the upper 30s. I could get even more power and mileage in the hybrid model, but it is more expensive, and the battery pack’s longevity seemed ill-suited to my typical decade-plus of active car use before trading in for a newer model.

Hutchinson by way of Wichita

Silver Fox transported Wendy and me 184 miles northwest from Bartlesville to visit Strataca, the underground museum in an exhausted part of the Hutchinson Salt Company’s mine below Hutchinson, Kansas. We stopped along the way for lunch in Wichita. The first two restaurants we tried were too crowded or closed, so we wound up at Five Guys Burgers & Fries. We’d heard about this chain but never been in one before. Our food took awhile to be prepared, but was delicious.

Strataca Entrance

We arrived in Hutchinson after 1 p.m. I drove around town to show Wendy the Cosmosphere, which we planned to visit the following day. I’d been there previously and would have shared it on this trip with Wendy, but she was catching a cold as we headed out, and that, along with plenty of homework for both of us, meant that we cut our trip short the following day and saved the Cosmosphere for a future return trip.

But neither homework nor head colds kept us from being transported 650 feet down to the huge salt mine below Hutchinson. Our first stop at Strataca was around 1:30 p.m. to purchase tickets. Strong winds of over 30 miles per hour pelted us with sand as we made our way from the parking lot, so I was glad the earliest we could descend was 3:20 p.m. That gave us time to do some shopping, and, upon our return, to strategically park my new car to avoid most of the blowing sand.

Back to the salt mine

We then waited in the above-ground lobby for our group’s descent on the elevator, reading posted quotations. One from Isak Dinesen appealed to me:

The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears, or the sea.

The museum occupies a tiny portion of the immense salt mine. The active area is mined by the Hutchinson Salt Company, a successor to the original Carey Salt Mine of 1923. They mine over 500,000 tons of rock salt annually, primarily for use in de-icing roads. The Carey mine has grown to over 980 acres, with inactive areas leased to Underground Vaults & Storage. They store various items in leased space roughly equivalent to 35 football fields encased in solid stone, more than 45 stories below ground. The entire played-out portion of the mine, however, is equivalent to almost 740 football fields, stretching miles in each direction. If linked end-to-end, the mined rooms would stretch over 150 miles. The temperature is a steady 68 degrees year-round, although large fans have to be used to circulate air brought down through the shaft. Abandoned areas of the mine are closed off so that they don’t have to waste energy moving air around in those spaces.

Down we go

Wendy before a wall of rock salt

Throughout our visit we had to wear hard hats along with small rebreather kits strapped at waist level. The roof of the mine can peel, although they inspect the public area daily and knock down any loose bits. The trip down took 90 seconds in a newer double-level elevator that was constructed by the underground storage company and the county historical society. The original 1923 shaft is still in use by the mining company. We stepped out into a long wide tunnel through the rock salt, lit by roof-mounted lights.

The museum is a big U formed out of several of the interconnected rooms in the mine. The tour is self-paced, with displays in each room showing the various types of mining technology used here since 1923. Since it is so laborious to get mining equipment down the small shaft, it is never hauled back up and out. That meant we had examples of the original equipment to see, along with short video clips explaining how the equipment was used.

We examined display cases and passed fellow tourists taking selfies; the underground museum is equipped with WiFi, so you can keep in touch with the world above even with 45 stories of rocks above your head. Wendy and I took turns posing by the mine’s walls of rock salt, which include occasional pure salt veins formed by water flow.

Down in the salt mine

Different eras of mining technology

Salt saw

The mine originally relied on rails laid on the floors to move its electrical machinery and to haul the workers and mine materials. We passed an old train that transported workers and saw how they use large saws to undercut a fresh face. This provides a nice level floor and allows the rock to collapse when it is blasted loose. Deep holes are drilled into the face, and explosives are inserted. In the old days they used dynamite, and there were lots of empty dynamite boxes in the mine, but today they use ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. The chunks of rock salt used to be shoveled by hand into train bins to be hauled to a crusher and lifted. The blasting saved some effort, but workers still had to manually shovel tons of rock.

Eventually they abandoned the use of rails, switching to diesel vehicles. On display were an old car and a pickup which had been dismantled and brought down the shaft, and then reassembled and welded back together. My favorite was a 1940 tractor which got stuck in a farm shelterbelt back in 1958 and abandoned. In 1994 a mine supervisor bought it for $60 and had workers cut it loose from tree that had grown up through it. They disassembled it and brought it down into the mine, put it back together and cleaned the carburetor, and put it to use. Since Star Trek: Voyager was popular at the time, they named the tractor after the eponymous ship in that show, and even labelled its battery holder as the warp core.

Voyager tractor and its warp core

The mine today uses front-end loaders running on bio-diesel to scoop up blasted rock salt into a crusher. The crushed rock spills out onto an extremely long conveyor belt for transport to the original shaft.

Front-end loader and conveyor belt

Storage

Dean Cain’s Superman suit

A fun area of the museum displays the history of the storage facility. I laughed at the incongruity of the 1959 Miss Salt Queen contestants. The mine was originally mostly six feet high, but the storage areas were raised to 10 feet. Today they use big cutters to lift the ceilings for storage areas, and this creates firmer ceilings and beautiful patterns in the rock salt. The much-appreciated bathroom facility they added in 2012 has walls which show the difference between the lower blasted mine area and the cut upper section.

This mine is the largest single storage facility for movie and television film internationally, thanks to its consistent 68 degree temperature and 35-40% humidity. A display illustrated the storage racks, and they had several movie costumes on display, including the Mr. Freeze costume and infamous “nipple” Batman suit from the 1997 movie Batman & Robin. I was a fan of Lois & Clark back in the 1990s, so I enjoyed seeing a Superman costume worn by Dean Cain.

Wendy with Dorothy II from Twister

Old animation drawings are also stored in the mine, and it was neat to look at original Bugs Bunny and Sylvester drawings. I was already familiar with data records storage in salt mines, since my mother worked for a savings and loan in Oklahoma City which stored records in a mine near Kansas City. The mine storage areas hold a variety of stored data records, and Wendy was impressed by the huge old IBM System 38 computer on display. Above it was a nice display of evolving data storage technologies, reminding me of my recent post about my own digital storage changes. It was amusing to see that the big IBM computer tape reels we used to always see spinning back and forth in old movies only held about 140 megabytes of data. My desktop computer currently has instant access to over 35,000 times that much local storage.

We came across the Dorothy II prop from the Twister movie; we’d seen the Dorothy I and other similar props in the Oklahoma History Museum last November. I enjoyed seeing old 35 mm film movie editing equipment used to view, cut, and splice films back in the days before digital editing.

Train and tram rides

We had purchased tickets allowing us to ride an electric train for a narrated 15-minute ride through parts of the mine dating to the 1940s and 1950s. We saw how they used to plug up spent areas with old dynamite boxes to control air circulation. There were areas where the floor had heaved up or a part of the roof had collapsed, and some of the old mine rails and cars. The mine is ever-so-slowly closing up under the pressure of the overlying rock; a study by the nuclear energy folks showed it might seal up in 36,000 years. The slow buckling of the mine was part of the reason why protesters successfully fought against having the salt mines used for nuclear waste storage, worried that waste might eventually be introduced into the overlying aquifer. That aquifer was a barrier to the construction of the shaft we took down into the mine; they punched through it by freezing the surrounding area during the drilling before lining that portion with concrete to keep the water out.

Other “remnants” of mining we saw along our excursion included a trash pile and portable toilet; they really do leave stuff down in the mine! We then took a tram for a “dark ride” through parts of the mine without electric lighting, but the low light levels and steady motion meant that the only shot I got was of an abandoned old car.

Heading up and out

As we left the mine, I posed with a pickaxe, and then we boarded the elevator for the ascent. Back outside, I looked at the small electric train engine once used for switching services at the Carey Salt Mine’s evaporation plant and mine. The wind was still strong and dust-laden as we drove back to Wichita, passing through large clouds of dust reminding us that this area was part of the 1930s Dust Bowl.

Dust storm outside of Hutchinson

Along the Arkansas in Wichita

We spent the night at the historic Drury Plaza Broadview Hotel along the Arkansas River in downtown Wichita. We were on the 8th floor in a nice spacious high-ceiling room with a great west view of the river. Wendy got a great shot of the sunset before we headed out to eat.

View of the Arkansas from the hotel

Wichita’s Old Town district seemed the best bet for finding some nightlife on the Sunday night before Labor Day, and we enjoyed pizzas at the Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom.

Spangles for lunch

The next morning Wendy’s cold had worsened, and so we opted to head home after lunch rather than drive back to Hutchinson’s Cosmosphere. Our first attempts for Labor Day lunch failed, since family restaurants were understandably closed, so we wound up at one of the many Spangles joints around town. Outside there was an old Chevy plunging out over the building’s entrance, and inside we found a Mustang Mach I, Phillips 66 signage, and good burgers.

We enjoyed our trip and look forward to returning to Wichita and Hutchinson in the future, but although we certainly enjoyed our tour at Strataca, we won’t have to go “back to the salt mine.”

Click here for a slideshow from this trip

About Granger Meador

I enjoy day hikes, photography, podcasts, reading, web design, and technology. My wife, Wendy, and I work in the Bartlesville Public Schools in northeast Oklahoma, but this blog is outside the scope of our employment.
This entry was posted in photos, travel. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s