By Brian Nelson
Chandler Kirkhart rolled out of bed at 7 a.m. for school on a Saturday morning. He journeyed 100 miles northwest and 650 feet underground. There, he explored the Underground Salt Museum in Hutchinson with Travel Writing, a class in which he is currently enrolled.
“I thought it was quite amusing, even though I got up kind of early,” said Kirkhart, English sophomore. “I didn’t expect it to be as fascinating as it was.”
The fascination began with a tour at 10:40 a.m. After loading in a double-decker elevator, the class was taken to the salt mine 650 feet below the prairie. Salt mines in Kansas resulted from salt deposits formed 275 million years ago. The Carey Salt Company started mining on the Hutchinson site in 1923. Salt walls stretch for miles and offer vast, though limited, exploration.
“My favorite part was memorabilia from the movies and how they preserved them under there,” said Kirkhart.
Movie memorabilia and props are stored in the salt mines for long-term preservation with a constant 68 degree temperature. Some of the items found on exhibit include Wonka chocolate bars from “Charlie and the Chocolate factory” (2005), the costumes of Batman and Mr. Freeze from “Batman and Robin” (1997) and a “Dorothy” from “Twister” (1996), which was a technological contraption used to analyze air movement in tornados.
After touring through the movie memorabilia, the class was taken on a tram ride through the dark chambers of the salt mine.
“It was really, really cool,” said Stacy Harkness, English junior. “The dark ride was creepy.”
Though creepy, Harkness said she enjoyed it.
“It glimmered like crystal with layers of black and silver,” said Kirkhart, referring to the reflection of the lighting on the walls.
The glimmer was a long wait for Michelle Boucher, professor of English and director of general education. Boucher is not the class instructor, but attended as a chaperone.
“It was fun,” said Boucher. “I grew up in Hutch and when I was in grade school they closed the mines and I never got to go down in the mines and I always wanted to.”
During her visit, Boucher learned the mines were closed to visitors because they slowed down the elevators and thus slowed down production. The mine reopened to the public as the Underground Salt Museum in 2004.
“They were so much bigger than I expected them to be and I’ve seen the ‘Dirty Jobs’ show,” said Boucher. The Discovery Channel premiered “Salt Miner” on “Dirty Jobs” Feb. 27, 2007, which looked into the Hutchinson salt mines.
Boucher compared the salt mines to gold mines that she has entered and described the salt mines to be wide open, while gold mines are small and cramped.
“It was interesting,” she said. “I really liked when they turned all the lights off. Some people get a really fearful feeling. I really liked it.” Boucher found the atmosphere calming, as did class instructor John Scaggs, associate professor of English and English program coordinator.
“I think it went really well,” said Scaggs. “It was a completely different experience and I think everyone enjoyed it.”
Scaggs, who had previously been cave exploring in Spain, found the experience somewhat familiar.
“The only thing I hadn’t seen before, though wasn’t surprised with, was the scale of (the mine), the wide open champers, and amount of stuff stored in the vaults.” Scaggs was pleased to see the response from his students, knowing they also gathered a lot of information that they will apply to their writings for class.
After the tour in the mine, the class continued on to visit Yoder, an Amish town and then explored downtown Hutchinson.
“I’m learning a lot from these trips as well,” said Scaggs. “I’m not saying that’s the motive for teaching the class, but one motive is to get me to go to the places that I’ve been meaning to go to as well, and it’s nice to do with students, and experience their sense of discovery at the same time.”
Scaggs encourages students who are not in the class to take time to explore the local area. “Some of these places are close,” said Scaggs. He said that students could travel to Hutchinson in the morning, tour the salt museum and arrive back in Winfield shortly after lunch time.
“I’m hoping it’s just a way to realize things they never thought about before.”
The Underground Salt Museum winter hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Adult admission is $14.35.
“It’s definitely worth the trip,” said Chandler Kirkhart. “Sure, it’s something you’re not use to, and out of your comfort zone, but everyone likes a thrill.”