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HUTCHINSON, Kan. – We descended into the belly of the Earth.

“It’s going to take us just a couple of minutes to go underground. Does anybody have a problem going down in the dark?” our cheerful guide asked.

“No? OK,” the guide said. “We do that because it gives you the first experience of going into the mine. Miners go down ... in the dark, so we try to do the same as well.

“It will be completely dark,” she continued, “what we call pure mine darkness, and you won’t be able to see a thing. Your ears might feel some pressure, kind of like when you’re flying, so if you swallow, that will pop your ears.”

As we descended, cool mine air blasted up through an air hole in the floor. Down, down, metal clanking; down, down, gears groaning, the elevator squeezed its way through the shaft.

Did I mention we were all wearing hard hats? And emergency breathing apparatus around our necks?

“The bumpings and scrapings and all that, that is normal,” the guide said, voice raised above the clatter. “There are sensors on the sides of the hoist and, um, just a little bit of salt dust. I like to say that you’d probably hear the same sounds in an elevator, but you’re in an insulated compartment in an elevator.”

She kept up a cheerful patter during the 90-second ride. This tidbit caught my ear: There are only three ways in and out of the mine. We were standing in one of them.

There was a loud beep-beep-beep. “That sound means we’re 50 feet from the bottom already,” the guide said.

And just like that, we were there. Our guide pulled the heavy metal doors of the hoist open, and we stepped out into a lighted lobby.

“Good morning! My name is Patty,” said the perky, white-haired woman waiting for us. “Welcome to the Kansas Underground Salt Museum. You are now 650 feet below the surface of the Earth.”

Six hundred and fifty feet – roughly the height of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

More than 400,000 visitors have made this trip since May 2007, when the museum opened in mined-out caverns of the 920-acre Hutchinson Salt Co. Shortly thereafter the museum was named one of the eight wonders of Kansas, along with the nearby Kansas Cosmosphere.

Patty informed us that the ground we stood on was covered 275 million years ago by the Permian Sea. The sea left behind a giant swath of salt – 30 trillion tons – stretching from an area northeast of Kansas City through Kansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

“We have been asked if we are going to run out of salt here. They predict that 2,500 years from now, this salt strata will be exhausted,” Patty said.

Salt has been mined continuously in this spot since 1923, when the Carey Salt Co. (today it is Hutchinson Salt) set up operations in one of the biggest deposits of rock salt in the world. Salt is still mined here on the same level as the museum for use in animal feed, tanning hides and de-icing roads.

The museum floors are made with salt, too, Patty said, which is why drinks are not allowed in the mine. Don’t want to melt those floors.

The lobby opened onto a cavernous space lit from overhead – a so-called “great room.”

“This is how they mined back in the ’20s and ’30s, in large, dead-end rooms that were 300 feet long and 50 feet wide,” she said.

A 6,000-pound hunk of whitish-gray crystallized salt sat in the middle of the space.

The story is told that a former mine manager figured that one day someone would need that giant rock for posterity, so he had his men save it. Otherwise, it could have wound up on the streets of Chicago, the No. 1 customer for the road salt mined here.

The mine at work

The museum tells the story of salt mining in Hutchinson. Videos and exhibits show how the salt is extracted, crushed and moved to the hoist that carries it to the surface. The process was backbreaking, pick-and-shovel type of labor until the mine lost workers to World War II and began to mechanize the process.

Before the conveyor belts used today, the salt was hauled through the mine on train cars. Almost 5,000 feet of that track was dug up, cut up, bent and built into a railroad that carries visitors into dark corners of the mine.

Before we boarded the open-air train cars, the conductor of the Salt Mine Express told us the rules: Keep limbs inside the car at all times, and do not raise your hands above your hard hat.

“There are places out there where you can actually touch the ceiling, you can actually touch the walls,” our engineer said. “But we don’t want you to do that because the salt can be sharp, it can cut. And salt in a wound does not feel very good.”

He clanged the train’s bell as we rolled off into the dark. Spotlights activated by motion sensors lit up displays along the way. Our first stop was in front of a bulkhead, a wall built by miners to direct air flow.

“There’s over 150 miles of tunnels down here, so it was important for the miners to keep the air where they were working instead of letting it go out into parts of the mine where they were finished,” a recorded narration said.

In front of the wall, on a table, lay a pair of work gloves from the 1940s.

“When this area was being mined, everyone conserved materials for the war effort,” the narrator said. “The miners wore the glove on their right hand and used the right glove until they wore out the palm. And then they would wear it on their left hand until they wore out the back of their glove.”

The train moved on to a place where huge, dangerously jagged chunks of earth and rock littered the mine floor.

“As you look to the left,” the narrator prompted, “you’ll see a rare sight, what the miners call a roof fall. The pieces on the floor used to be the roof. But over a number of years, the salt started sagging away from the compacted mud layer above it and eventually fell.

In the train’s headlights I could see that we were heading into a narrow tunnel with a very, very, very, very, very, very low ceiling.

The train stopped on the other side at an exhibit of, well, trash. “Everything that comes down in the mine stays in the mine,” the narrator said. “If you look at the lit area, you’ll see that this is even true of mining trash.”

Hershey bar wrappers, Coke bottles, Campbell’s soup cans, a 1953 calendar. The trash was artfully arranged next to a crude miner’s toilet, little more than a wooden box with a toilet seat on top.

Overnighters

Scout troops regularly camp overnight in the museum, almost every Saturday during winter, and take guided walks out into the scary darkness of the mine.

I’m neither young nor brave. But for research purposes only I took the museum’s ominously titled “Dark Ride.” Patty, again, was our guide. As she drove the tram away from the gift shop a co-worker yelled out: “Bring them all back this time!”

Up ahead, in a room mined of its salt during the ’40s and ’50s, she slowed the tram and announced: “I am going to stop and turn the lights off just for a moment, just to give you another experience with mine darkness. On the count of three I’m going to turn the lights off.

“One. Two. Three.”

She flipped off the headlights.

The darkness swallowed us alive.

“Do you ever get lost down here?” one man asked as Patty turned on the headlights and drove on.

“I never have,” she said. “I’ve heard that most people have turned wrong at least once. So far, I haven’t.”

“Glad to hear that,” the man said.

Patty pulled the tram next to a pile of rock salt and invited us to take a piece home. Just don’t climb on the pile, she warned. “Find yourself a souvenir that’s millions of years old!”

From the get-go, you know that this adventure through the bowels of the Earth is no trip to Disney World. You can’t even go underground without first watching a safety film explaining the three-pound “self-rescuer” you have to wear at all times, like the miners.

“It changes carbon monoxide, which is a byproduct of fire, into harmless carbon dioxide,” the film narrator explains. “The mouthpiece will get hot, maybe even hot enough to burn your lips and mouth. Don’t spit it out! This means the chemical reaction is working.

“Now that you’re wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into, we want you to know that the salt will not burn, and there are no [harmful] gases in this mine, as a coal mine has. No one has ever had to use the self-rescuer in this mine.”

The welcome mat

The mine had to be someone’s brainchild. Turns out his name is Jay Smith, and he lives in South Dakota. But in December 1995 he moved to Hutchinson to be executive director of the Reno County Historical Society.

One of the first places he visited was a historical placard marking the spot where salt was first discovered in this city. The marker was overgrown with weeds “and kind of forgotten,” Smith recalled.

He had noticed lots of places around town named Salt City this and Salt City that. But at the historical museum “there wasn’t really a lot about salt on display. Here was this town’s namesake, and it wasn’t being fully discussed,” said Smith, now the state museum director for the South Dakota State Historical Society.

One day he chanced to visit Underground Vaults & Storage, a business that leases space in the mine from Hutchinson Salt Co.

“It looked like you were going to a new world,” Smith said. “I’d been in coal mines and gold mines before, so I was happy to see wide open spaces because it made you feel comfortable.”

That’s when the idea hit: Why not put a museum down there?

People told Smith that the museum couldn’t be built. He knew he’d need the blessing of the two companies already doing business in the mine.

In June 1999 he sat down with folks from the salt company and Underground Vaults. They too tried to talk him out of the idea “about a million different ways,” he said.

But they promised: If you can get federal safety authorities to approve it, we’ll help.

Thus began “one of the most unique partnerships you’ll find in the United States, between a small historical society, an underground storage company and a working salt company,” Smith said. “I mean, where do you see that?”

The project lurched forward in fits and starts. “Nobody had any idea how difficult it was going to be because it’s just a completely alien kind of environment down there,” said Linda Schmidt, the current director of the Reno County Historical Society.

“No one who worked on the project had ever worked in that kind of environment before. Nobody knew how to do that, so that just led to all kinds of challenges and setbacks.”

For instance: How to move waste from the restrooms to the surface? (Lots of pumps and back-up systems do the dirty work.) And how to keep visitors from veering into unsafe areas or getting lost? (Walls were built to discourage wandering.)

Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. all hide things at Underground Vaults. It’s a veritable Fort Knox safe from tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and all manner of mischief and mayhem, where the 68-degree temperature and 45-percent humidity are ideal for preserving paper and film.

Secret government documents also are locked up here. Everything is electronically catalogued and bar-coded so it can be easily found.

The Underground Vaults folks are loathe to reveal specifics about their clients. But over the years they have shared that they are the keepers of such historic movies as “Ben-Hur” and “Star Wars,” old silent movies, and the original film negative of “The Wizard of Oz.”

In the gift shop I met Sandy Beltz, a visitor from northeast Nebraska. She and her husband like to check out “weird and different places” on vacation, and an Internet search led them to the salt mine museum.

She’d been concerned that her claustrophobia would kick in underground, but “it wasn’t what I thought,” she said. “The ceilings are high, and it’s very open.”

For a souvenir, she settled on a T-shirt. It read: “I Survived the Shaft.”

If you go:

Kansas Underground Salt Museum, E. Avenue G, Hutchinson, Kansas (undergroundmuseum.org; 620-662-1425 or 866-755-3450). Winter hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. Allow at least two hours for your visit. Last tour each day departs two hours before closing.

Admission is $14 adults; $12 seniors, AAA members and active military; $7.50 children ages 4-12.