Go Down Below in the Salt Mine Museum in Hutchinson Kansas

Most of us probably never give a thought about the salt and other stuff they put on the roads in the winter time to break up snow and ice. Am I right?

Where does it come from? Is it edible like table salt? Is it the same salt we use to make hand-churned ice cream?

But if you’re the curious type who is now thinking about highway salt, let’s take a road trip to Hutchinson, Kansas.

 

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Strataca – A Salt Museum in Kansas

entrance to Strataca, the salt mine museum in Hutchison KSBring this up at a cocktail party sometime to impress people with your inane knowledge of useless information: There are 15 mines in the U.S. that dig up the salt that we put on highways, sidewalks and parking lots to keep us from slipping and sliding in the winter.

Three are in Kansas. But only in Hutchinson at Strataca, the Underground Salt Mine Museum, can you go 650 feet below ground to see how all of this happens. It’s the only museum like it in the U.S.

You get to wear a hard hat and everything.

But if you become uncomfortable in caves and other underground spaces, be alert that the tour lasts between two and three hours. I was getting a little freaked out.

Also, if you suffer from allergies or other sinus problems, spending time in a salt mine helps dry it up — real fast. However, after a couple of hours down there, I noticed my eyes feeling very dry and scratchy.

Here’s a tip: Do not touch an exhibit of salt and then later rub your eyes. Holy moly, that burns.

historic images of workers in the underground salt mine museum in Hutchison KS

Learning About Salt Mining in Kansas

Road salt mined in Hutchison KS

The salt in this part of the U.S. stretches from Kansas to Texas and through New Mexico. It was created more than 250 million years ago when the Permian Sea covered this part of the world.

This vein was discovered in the 1880s when people were drilling for oil. But serious salt mining didn’t start here until 1923.

The salt, or sodium chloride if you want to sound like a scientist, that comes from under Hutchinson is not edible. However, it is used for animal feed, so eventually most of us do consume it. This is road salt.

Snow plow and salt truck.The employees here dig out about 600,000 tons a year and ship to communities around the Midwest for use in winter snow and ice storms. I’m told the city of Chicago gets much of its salt from Hutchinson.

Mining for salt is very similar to mining for coal. At this particular mine, each night at midnight, they blast a few hundred yards more through the mine tunnel to loosen up the salt. They wait a few hours for the dust to settle and then are back at it in two 10 hour shifts, six days a week.

Got Salt for Your Driveway? 

                       

 

Weird Stuff in the Kansas Salt Mine Museum

A tunnel filled with salt in the Strataca Underground Salt Mine Museum in Hutchison KSWhen I first stepped off the elevator 650 feet below ground, I was transfixed by the sparkling walls and ceiling. These are salt crystals reflecting artificial light, and it’s beautiful. 

It doesn’t photograph well, but it’s really pretty cool.

When former employees of the mining operation and community leaders got the idea to open a museum here, they found a lot of stuff left over in the 80 years or so that mining had taken place. Really, if you think about it, why haul your trash back to the surface because what are you supposed to do with it?  Bury it in a landfill?

Hutchison Salt Mine Museum trash

This pile contains candy wrappers, cigarettes boxes, soup cans and more used by miners who worked long hours in the mine.

Toilet in the old Hutchison salt mineAmong the findings was a half-eaten roast beef sandwich. Based on its the location in the mine and other wrappers around it, the sandwich is believed to be about 60 years old and perfectly preserved. Salt will do that.

And although there are modern toilets for today’s visitors, this is how workers took care of business years ago. Right out there in the open. Again, salt preserves this stuff real well.

Maybe at this point I should mention that fresh air is cycled through the salt mine museum every 48 hours.

But among the unexpected but fun exhibits are the props used in Hollywood movies. Sure Hollywood preserves its movies underground in places across the U.S., including quite a few in Kansas City. But this storage space includes props. You’ll see lots of costumes from movies, including the snowman from the movie “Jack Frost” starring Michael Keaton, the shield that Brad Pitt carried as Achilles in “Troy,” and sun glasses and memory-erasing guns from the “Men in Black” franchise.

Men in Black movie props stored underground in the salt mine museum in Hutchison Kansas

Train Rides In the Salt Mine Museum

historic equipment in the underground salt mine in Hutchison KSThe Underground Salt Mine Museum is 2 1/2 miles long, so naturally there is a train ride through some of the more remote areas of the tunnel.

It’s fun and interesting, but I simply don’t like when they turn the lights off to show us exactly what complete darkness looks like. Some people find it fascinating but that’s about the time I want to claw my way to the surface.

At one point, they stop and let you collect some salt fragments to take home as a souvenir. Don’t eat it. Please.

If you’re really into salt mines and underground spaces, you’ll be pleased to know that there’s an event space in this museum. People get married and have their receptions here. 

When you go, remember that it’s always around 68° underground, so you might want to bring a jacket. Also, children under 4 may not participate in the tours.

But if you’re the type of person who finds things like road salt fascinating — first of all you’re a little weird. But if you like learning about the world we live in while you travel, you’re certainly a mojotraveler. And we like that in a person.

Salts We Can Eat