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Explore the History and Evolution of the Midwest’s 'Salt City'

Travel 650 feet beneath Hutchinson, Kansas, to explore the fascinating evolution of its prehistoric salt vein.

  • 10 min to read

The skyline of downtown Hutchinson, Kansas, is modest. Here, in the heart of the country, the “prairie skyscrapers,” as The Hutchinson News affectionately calls them, are towering grain elevators storing millions of bushels of wheat. The town of 41,310 people might be best known today as home to the Cosmosphere space museum, which features more than 13,000 spaceflight artifacts, including the Odyssey command module from Apollo 13.

To really feel like you’re in outer space, though, you must travel 650 feet beneath Hutchinson (or Hutch, as it’s known to locals). You’ll find a sparkling terrain that feels otherworldly, where the temperature is a constant 68°F. If you close your eyes and take a deep breath, you’ll inhale briny air and feel transported to the seaside. Yet there's no water or sunlight here – no signs of life at all, only tunnels and caverns of salt. This is part of one of the largest salt deposits in the U.S., formed more than 275 million years ago, spanning 27,000 square miles under central and south-central Kansas.

Above ground – or topside, as local salt miners say – there are only hints of the natural wonder below. Businesses along Main Street include Salt City Coin and Salt City Land & Title Co. The Hutchinson High School mascot is the Salthawk, and the biggest races in town are the Run for the Rocks half-marathon and The Salty Dog triathlon.

For many years, nearby South Hutchinson hosted Salt Fest, an annual fair featuring a parade, horseshoe contest, tractor pull and more. Students once walked the halls of now-shuttered Salt City Business College across the street from the Reno County Museum in Hutchinson. A visit to that museum reveals a rich history of the salt industry in the area. It’s a history that locals know well, says Reno County Museum curator Lynn Ledeboer, yet the legacy is less well-known outside of the area.

“For local people, I think the salt industry has always been in their consciousness, because they’ve grown up around it,” Ledeboer says. “But even a little bit farther out, going to Wichita, which is an hour away, I think even that far they are unaware of this little treasure that’s here.”

It’s easy to understand why. After all, how often do those of us not from Salt City really think about where the finely ground crystals in our shakers come from?

“You go into a store and buy a little canister of salt, and if you’re not involved in that industry, it does come as a surprise that it’s right beneath our feet,” Ledeboer says.

Of the Earth

Salt is essential to cooking; you probably have a box of Morton or a cellar filled with Maldon in your kitchen. It’s also essential to human life, as the body can’t produce sodium naturally, yet our nerves and muscles require it. Until the 19th century, when industrialization made it readily available worldwide, salt was a prized commodity.

As Mark Kurlansky writes in his book Salt, “The earliest written record of salt production in China dates to around 800 B.C. and tells of production and trade of sea salt a millennium before, during the Xia dynasty. It is not known if the techniques described in this account were actually used during the Xia dynasty, but they were considered old ways by the time of this account, which describes putting ocean water in clay vessels and boiling it until reduced to pots of salt crystals. This was the technique that was spread through southern Europe by the Roman Empire, 1,000 years after the Chinese account was written.”

In ancient Rome, the Via Salaria (or Salt Route) stretched from the Adriatic coast, where salt was extracted from the sea, to Ostia, just outside of Rome. Salt was so valuable that Roman soldiers were given special salt rations called salarium argentum. The Latin word for salt, sal, is the root of the word salary. During the Civil War, Union generals strategically targeted Southern salt facilities to deprive Confederate troops and civilians of the vital resource. “Blood was spilled again and again in battles over the saltworks at Saltville, Virginia, and in the nearby Kanawha Valley,” wrote Steve Kemper for Smithsonian Magazine in 1999.

“After the Yankees finally captured those places, Jefferson Davis desperately offered immunity from military service to anyone who would volunteer to tend makeshift salt kettles set up along the coast of Florida and the Carolinas to boil down seawater.” During the 19th century, the majority of salt produced in the U.S. was made by evaporating water from Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, New York. Although the nickname's use has waned, Syracuse was once proudly called Salt City as well.

"The Future Great of Kansas"

The story of how salt was first discovered in Kansas is classic American Old West, like something you'd see in an episode of Bonanza. In 1875, while setting up camp about 50 miles from Hutchinson, cowboys came across a natural salt spring, which is created by saltwater in underlying bedrock. A company was soon established in Hutchinson to capitalize on the find, intending to pump the salt brine to Raymond, Kansas, about 10 miles from the discovery site, evaporate it into salt there and ship it out via the Santa Fe Railroad. The plan fell apart, though, as the brine wasn't pure enough to make evaporation profitable.

Around the same time, and purely by coincidence, there was a groundswell of activity and growth happening in Hutch. “The fates point with the iron hand of destiny to Hutchinson as the future great of Kansas,” proclaimed The Hutchinson Daily News in August 1887. In a series of stories published to celebrate Hutch’s “centennial of salt” in September 1987, The Hutchinson News wrote that in the late 1880s “construction was going on at an astonishing rate. In all, 14 buildings worth a total of $150,000 were under construction on North Main alone – a rate of growth that supposedly outstripped every other comparably sized city in the country…A brief item in The Hutchinson Daily News noted that there were 120 real-estate agents employed in the city.”

One such real-estate prospector was Ben Blanchard. He arrived in Hutch from his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana, on his custom-built private luxury rail car, which he described as a “palace on wheels.” He’s often referred to as a “flashy dresser,” decked out in red neckties accented with diamond stickpins, who rode into the frontier town in search of riches. He quickly earned nicknames such as “Scheming Ben,” “Bold Ben” and “Get Rich Quick Blanchard.”

“You’d have thought he was the most wonderful little fellow you ever saw if you didn’t know about his manipulations,” a woman recalled to the Hutchinson News-Herald in 1938. “He would get up and pray in the Methodist church and you’d be carried straight to heaven.”

Blanchard founded South Hutchinson in 1887, buying up land and building commercial businesses including a flour mill and a barbed-wire factory, as well as frame homes, all in an effort to draw interest in real estate. Today, the town is a sister city to Hutch. “But as good as the real-estate boom was in those days, Blanchard evidently thought it could be better,” wrote The Hutchinson News in 1987. “Anything that could shoot already-inflated land prices even higher meant money, and oil or natural gas must have seemed like just the thing.”

Determined to be the source of that boom, Blanchard began drilling in the summer of 1887. He encouraged investors to visit the area and buy land from him in South Hutchinson, promising them an imminent coal, oil or natural gas discovery.

After months of drilling with no results, he hinted to Ralph Easley, editor of The Hutchinson Daily News, that he’d struck natural gas. The editor didn’t wait to confirm facts, and instead penned a sensational story headlined: “We Will Have Light! We Will Have Fuel! We Want the Earth and All There Is In It! Hutchinson Has a Dead Certainty of Gas and Coal Before Christmas.” Instead, on Sept. 27, Blanchard struck the salt vein. Locals weren’t surprised by the find, given the salt spring near Raymond.

“But when the coal, oil and natural gas he had promised his investors turned into a much less lucrative 300-foot-thick vein of rock salt, Blanchard’s Hutchinson days were numbered,” wrote The Hutchinson News in 1987. “Less than a year later, with nothing to keep prices high, the real estate boom began to bust.” Blanchard didn’t stick around, and never founded his own salt company.

There are numerous accounts of Blanchard being run out of town by incensed townspeople – he had promised them natural gas, after all. The wildest stories allege that he left town disguised as a woman to avoid being tarred and feathered, although Ledeboer at the Reno County Museum is certain it didn’t happen that way. “It’s very romantic and hilarious, but that story has basically been debunked,” she says.

Nevertheless, Blanchard's discovery would end up bringing profit and prosperity to the once-quiet pioneer town of Hutchinson, quickly nicknamed “the Salt City of the West.” At the time, salt from Michigan was selling in Kansas for $3.50 a barrel. Within a year, 11 salt plants were in operation in the area and the local price per barrel had dropped to $1.55.

Within five years of the discovery, in 1892, Chicago businessman Joy Morton visited the Hutchinson area. Six years later, he bought land in South Hutchinson. “Morton initially set up his operations under Hutchinson-Kansas Salt, a division of International Salt Co., which was owned by a group of investors headed by Morton, who was also president of the company,” John Green reported for The Hutchinson News in 2014. “In January 1910, Morton formally incorporated Morton Salt Co. Although its headquarters were in Chicago, the sales operation remained in Hutchinson until moving to Kansas City in 1914.”

Morton has produced table salt in Kansas since. Only three other salt operations have endured in or near Hutchinson: Cargill, which purchased the longtime independent Barton Salt Co. in 1973; Compass Minerals, which is headquartered in Overland Park, Kansas; and Hutchinson Salt Co. The latter has changed hands many times, and from 1923 to 1969 it was called Carey Salt Co. Founder Emerson Carey built the first and only salt mine in Hutchinson to produce rock salt. At the time, only solution-mining plants, which make table salt, were operating there.

“He saw more of a need for rock-salt mining, because the vein here was so rich that it could support a large-scale operation, and there were already all these other solution-mining operations,” says Chris Albert, assistant curator at the Reno County Museum.

Mining rock salt was far more labor-intensive when Carey opened his mine; now, modern machinery bears the brunt of the work, although it’s still very physically demanding. The mine is again owned locally and operates again under the name Hutchinson Salt Co. It still produces rock salt, but the solution facilities producing table salt were closed many years ago due to increasing competition.

The key differences between rock salt and table salt are purity and the method of harvesting. Hutchinson Salt Co. grinds its rock salt into coarse and fine grades used for de-icing roads, tanning hides, making aluminum and adding to livestock feed. Cargill and Morton operate solution-mining facilities in the area for making the salt that ends up on grocery store shelves.

Out of the Pan

Geologists estimate that the Hutchinson salt vein was formed during the Permian period, which was followed by the Triassic, or “Age of the Dinosaurs.” The vein took 40 million years to form, requiring the evaporation of 80 feet of water to form just a 1-foot layer of salt. Around 275 million years ago, modern-day Kansas was part of the vast Permian Sea, which gradually receded and grew shallower. Evaporation in the then-hot, dry climate surpassed precipitation, and layers of salt settled on the sea floor, creating a bed of salt. A much more refined and mechanized version of this process is used to make table salt today.

At the Morton facility in South Hutchinson, table salt is made through vacuum evaporation. It still involves drilling into the salt vein – wells are drilled into the earth, about 500 and 1,000 feet apart. The wells are connected underground through lateral, or non-vertical, drilling. Water is forced down one well, dissolving the salt below into a brine, which is then pumped to the surface through another well. Once topside, brine is placed in a storage tank to await processing. To make table salt, the brine is added to vacuum pans, mammoth closed tanks about three stories high, typically in a series of three, four or five pans. Steam is fed into the first pan, which begins to boil the brine, and the resulting steam then continues to heat the brine in the second pan with less intensity. The steaming process yields more salt per pound than if only one pan was steamed. Coarse and extra-fine grades of salt are then screened and reserved for table-salt packaging.

A small amount of calcium silicate coating material is added to salt to keep it free-flowing in damp and humid weather. This is what inspired the famous slogan “When It Rains It Pours," and the iconic Morton Salt Girl mascot. Although it’s standard for table salt to be coated in calcium silicate today, when the anti-caking agent was first introduced by Morton in 1911, it boosted the company above its competition. (Originally, magnesium carbonate was used.)

In 1924, Morton marked another milestone when it began selling iodized salt to prevent goiters and combat iodine deficiency. A few other companies also had added iodine to their salt to help eradicate iodine-deficiency disorders, but Morton’s broad distribution encouraged even more competing producers to follow suit. Research has linked the widespread availability of iodized salt, introduced in the 1920s in the U.S. and Switzerland – the first two countries to do so – with improved growth and cognition.

Today, Morton markets 50 grades and mixtures of salt specifically for industrial food manufacturers, the restaurant industry, and of course, home cooks, including coarse kosher salt, table salt, fine and coarse sea salt and various types of seasoned salts and rubs. Morton’s salt facility in South Hutchinson is one of 14 in North America that produces table salt, although only seven of those plants use vacuum evaporation. The others are solar operations, where ocean, sea or salt-lake water are drawn into large ponds, where sunlight and wind evaporate the water until salt crystals are formed and collected.

Still the Salt City

In 2007, a museum, Strataca, was opened inside a portion of the already mined-out Hutchinson Salt Co. mine. The museum is operated by the Reno County Historical Society and gives visitors a peek into how rock salt is mined. It’s here that you can breathe in pure salt air and see walls and ceilings formed entirely of salt, 650 feet beneath Hutchinson. An electric line runs underground, yet many of the conveniences here are battery-powered, including the trains and golf carts that traverse you through the cavernous mine. The museum is the only one operating in an active salt mine in the Western hemisphere; a few far older ones can be visited in Poland, Romania and Austria.

“Tourists always find it fascinating when they go underground on the tour and there’s little markers that show, ‘OK, right now you’re under this street,’” Ledeboer says. “And above ground, [when you’re on that same street, you know that] way down in the depths there’s the salt beneath you.”

Long before the Strataca museum opened, inviting people of all ages to don hard hats and descend into the salt mine, another group was doing business down below. Because the mine has consistent and naturally regulated temperature and humidity, and because no weather or natural disasters can damage it, it provides an ideal space for preserving valuable materials.

That’s exactly what Underground Vaults & Storage stores there: Everything from priceless original prints to never-before-seen outtakes from Gone With the Wind, Star Wars, and, appropriately, The Wizard of Oz, are safeguarded beneath Kansas. You can get a peek at the collection, including George Clooney’s Batsuit from Batman & Robin and the boxing gloves Will Smith wore in Ali, on the Strataca tour. The company hosts private and special events in the mine, including its 50th anniversary celebration in 2009, which resurrected a long-dead local tradition: The Salt Queen beauty pageant.

Strataca also hosts special events underground, including weddings and parties. Tickets to interactive Murder in the Mine dinner-theater performances are open to the public in April, August, October and December, and an annual Mine Run 5K is held in February.

Ledeboer and her colleagues at the museum are extremely proud of Strataca, which was a long-time dream of former executive director Linda Schmitt. From the beginning, the hope was to document and recognize the impact and significance of the salt industry in town, and the ancient salt vein running underfoot.

“There’s a lot of pride in the fact that the salt industry is here,” Ledeboer says. “The salt industry and Hutchinson are very, very intertwined, and the memory and legacy that it left, I believe, will continue to grow.”

Reno County Museum, 100 S. Walnut Street Ave., Hutchinson, Kansas, renocomuseum.org

Strataca, 3650 E. Ave G, Hutchinson, Kansas, underkansas.org

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