Strataca: Underground Salt Museum
If ever there was a mine tour designed for Mr. and Mrs. Armchair American, this is it. The Kansas Underground Salt Museum doesn't even have the word "mine" in its title, and that's no accident (The mine was obscured even further in 2013, when the attraction changed its name to the purposefully vague "Strataca"). There are no claustrophobic squeezes here, no deadly gasses, not even any dirt. A tour here is like a drive inside a parking garage -- except that it's 67 miles long and sealed inside of a 400-foot-thick block of salt.
Our guide is Linda Schmitt, executive director of the local historical society that has re-opened this mine to the public (It last had tours in 1964). "The biggest fear that people have," she told us, "is coming down here in the first place."
We understand why. The elevator ride down is a pitch-black descent, clanging, banging, and rattling inside a bare metal box that sounds as if it's being whacked with a sledgehammer. Anyone who's been silently whisked below the surface in a place like Carlsbad Caverns will get the heebie-jeebies here. Linda is sympathetic, but says that this is the best that the Museum could manage, given that it had to drill through 222 feet of rock, 128 feet of aquifer (which first had to be frozen), and another 300 feet of salt, which is so hard that you can't even drive a nail into it.
Once in the mine, however, everything is spacious, comfortable, and very quiet.
The tunnels go on for miles, and you could supposedly burrow all the way into New Mexico and never run out of salt. The Museum has developed only 100,000 square feet of this, but it's still big enough to get lost in. Fences around the underground periphery ensure that visitors can't wander off and disappear forever. "Once you get out of this museum area," Linda tells us, "it all looks alike."
The mine is one, endless room, with a floor and ceiling as flat as a Kansas prairie, broken into identical squares by columns of un-mined salt that support the roof. A map of the mine resembles the precise street grid of midtown Manhattan. There are no twisty tunnels or deadly floor shafts. You could drive a truck down here for miles and never hit anything.
Visitors get most of their tour on an electric-powered tram. The museum calls it "The Dark Ride." Our overactive brains imagined it careening around unseen pillars and down endless corridors in total darkness, ending in a squeaking stop as the guide announces that everyone had to find their own way back. Instead, it's a gentle, headlight-lit excursion that makes frequent stops at exhibits that illuminate as you approach.
One reason that the pace is so placid is that pulverized salt is sharp. "If you fall on it, it can really cut you up," Linda cautions, which is why there are no BMX bike races down here. (The museum did briefly consider staging one.)
The tour winds its way past a wall made of old dynamite cases (empty) and a sinkhole that formed when water got into the mine (The mine would melt if it ever got wet). A life-size photo of a miner next to a giant ruler shows the constricting effect of Floor Heave and Ceiling Sag. Linda tells us that "salt is very plastic" and that "it's like Play-Doh," but assures us these processes are too slow to swallow us alive.
Another exhibit is a stripped-down, post-Apocalyptic Road Warrior-type car that's typical of what the miners still drive down here. It's over 70 years old. Linda said that the salt preserved it, but at a price. "Everything that comes down here, stays down here," she said. "You can never take it back up. If you did (she snaps her finger) it would instantly corrode." Fortunately, tourists and their cameras are exposed too briefly to disintegrate when they exit.
The mine's perpetual 68 degrees and 40 percent humidity make it a great place to stash stuff once you screen out the salt. A company named Underground Vaults and Storage has been doing that here since the 1940s, founded by ex-GIs who saw a similar operation in Nazi Germany. Visitors aren't allowed into the vaults, but you can tour a small exhibit. Linda shows us around and patiently answers our nosy questions. "We know that there are secret recipes down here," she confides, and confirms that the master prints of Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and thousands of other Hollywood films are here as well. How about bodies? No, Linda replies, there are no bodies stored here. How about frozen people? Cryonics? "Well, I haven't heard of that," she answers. "I don't think so."
The nearest working face of the mine is several miles from the museum, and blasting is restricted until late at night. Overall, the Kansas Underground Salt Museum seems like a perfectly happy habitat, even with its Elevator of Terror. We asked Linda, with all of the missile silos in Kansas, if the town had ever considered using the mine as a municipal nuclear bomb shelter.
"Could it withstand a blast?" she answered. "Yes. But you'd have to hope that there'd be somebody up top that could let you out."