3 years in, Salt Museum has plans for more

HUTCHINSON — The Kansas Underground Salt Museum is growing up.

Today marks the third anniversary of the museum's opening for visitors.

Created in mined salt caverns, the museum opened May 1, 2007. .

On Thursday morning, among those riding the double-decker elevator down to the museum were students from St. Francis of Assisi Elementary School and Lawrence Elementary School, both in Wichita, as well as a group of travelers from South Korea.

About five students in each of the three St. Francis fifth-grade classrooms had toured the museum previously, and they all had recommended it as a "5" for a field-trip destination on a scale of 1 to 5, science teacher Linda Aylward said.

The Reno County Historical Society began promoting and raising funds for an underground salt museum about a decade ago. After delays, it debuted the same year the U.S. economy entered a recession. In 2008, the museum's first full year of operation, regular attendance totaled 58,305.

Admissions slipped in 2009 to less than 56,000, and the numbers so far this year make it unlikely the museum will hit its projection of 56,505.

Visitation numbers for bus tours of senior citizens and seasonal travelers are coming back, said Linda Schmitt, executive director of the Reno County Historical Society. Also, the numbers for field trips by private schools or home-schooled students "have stayed steady," she said.

Scouts have camped overnight in the museum — nearly 600 during the past year — and special events have drawn more visitors.

However, some public schools, squeezed by funding cuts, have canceled field trips to the museum, Schmitt said.

This school year, Schmitt said, Underground Vaults & Storage Inc. —a financial partner that installed the elevator that both the company and museum use — provided funding for buses for Wichita USD 259 to bring students in fourth through sixth grades to the museum. That was a huge help, Schmitt said.

Also, a Historical Society board member is subsidizing transportation of Kingman students to tour the museum, she said.

Getting a portion of Hutchinson city sales tax revenue helps the operation, as well as fundraising efforts. The museum has a paid staff of 20, although more than half of them are part-time or seasonal workers. In addition, it has about 25 to 30 active volunteers.

The museum is self-supporting, Schmitt said, but she doesn't hide concern about what could happen in the next school year if more schools limit field trips.

Schmitt's goals for the museum include the practical — the addition of new restrooms near the main hub inside of the museum — and the opening of a brand-new train ride, hopefully by mid-November, to capitalize on holiday travelers.

The museum acquired a miniature train ride from the Hutchinson Zoo that can carry adults and children. Hutchinson Salt Co., which operates the mine now, has told museum officials they can use old Carey Salt track and ties underground to build the new track. The museum's maintenance manager, Dave Unruh, has begun preliminary work.

The gas-powered engine is being converted to run by battery, and a $3,000 grant is assisting with that expense.

The train project requires special fundraising because additional labor may be needed and various safety features must be installed along the train's route.

Two fundraising events on the calendar include a July 31 "Murder in the Mine" dinner-theater mystery and a Hutchinson Haunts event Oct. 23. The latter event, putting the focus on haunted places in Hutchinson, will generate money for both the salt museum and the Historical Society's other museum, the Reno County Museum.

Adding the train ride could help the museum attract train buffs and bring repeat visitors to the museum, said Gayle Ferrell, the museum's director of operations.

The train route would be east of the museum's hub, which features exhibits and a gift store. The route is in a rough, undeveloped part of the mine, with a low ceiling and ribbed salt walls revealing where blasting was done by long-ago miners. When museum staff explored the route, they saw piles of wrappers and other trash left by miners. On one wall were initials and the year "1943."

More than any other part of the museum, the train route "is really raw mine," Ferrell said. The intent is to keep the route as natural as possible.

The train ride will be an extra option for museum visitors, just as visitors now have the option of adding the "dark ride" through a dark portion of the mine to their gallery visit, and student groups can take the basic tour or arrange for a more extensive Salt Academy.

"It's like being in a cave," said Tracy Nguyen, a St. Francis fifth-grader, after the tour.

"Really crystally, it's pretty," said fellow student Amanda Carney.

Laurie Briggs, whose son, Billy Briggs, attends St. Francis, grew up in Hutchinson, and it was a repeat visit for mother and son.

"It's remarkable what they've done down there," Laurie Briggs said.