Courthouse sinking linked to salt well

Sunday, September 27, 1987

This concrete foundation near South Main is all that's left of the Carey brine well that was accused of sinking the old Reno County Courthouse in 1926. With all the legal wrangling over railroad tariffs and other issues, Carey Salt Co. founder Emerson Carey was no stranger to the old Reno County Courthouse at 200 South Main.

But in 1926, Carey became involved in a courthouse controversy a little out of the ordinary - he was accused of sinking it.

On Feb. 27, 1925, a series of cracks appeared along the edge of the ceiling and the east wall of the treasurer's office. Within a day, they had widened and spread, showing up on the courthouse's south outer wall and near its main entrance.

A report in the newspaper noted that the perhaps-imminent disintegration of the building was "causing the county commissioners and other officials of the county considerable anxiety."

In the lobby, a large crack stretched from the office of the register of deeds to the office of the probate judge. Others appeared in the commissioners' office, the county clerk's vault, and in a second-floor lobby between jury rooms.

On examination, the building's main structure appeared to be settling away from an addition.

The 25-year-old courthouse had been too small for the county for several years, but any courthouse is better than no courthouse. Besides which, the thing was starting to look as if it could fall on the commission's collective head any minute.

After two weeks, some of the cracks were as much as 2 inches wide. Evacuation followed quickly, and when they weren't cleaning out desks, the commissioners took time to point the finger of blame at Emerson Carey.

Then, as now, most of the salt taken from under Hutchinson was extracted by brine mining: Water was forced into the salt bed, became saturated with salt, and was pumped back to the surface. The result was a big hole in the ground where the salt used to be.

Since Carey operated a brine well within the city limits _ in fact, next door to the courthouse itself _ the commissioners concluded that it was Carey's well that was swallowing their building.

First, they got out. Then, they sued.

After all, the whole thing was kind of humiliating. The commission had to set up shop in the Great American Life Insurance Co. building at Avenue A and Walnut, along with the county clerk, treasurer and auditor. The register of deeds and the probate judge got the Commercial National Bank building, then at Main and Sherman.

The sheriff and county attorney were relegated to digs in the YWCA building behind a bank on West Sherman, along with the Farm Bureau and the judge and clerk of District Court. The county engineer got a spot in the Arkansas Valley Interurban Depot.

Little wonder, then, that a year later they sued Carey for $200,000 for "gross negligence and reckless disregard for the rights of the county." The case spun out for three years in civil court; scientific experts were brought in by both sides and disagreed with each other vehemently. And the building creaked and the cracks opened wider, but the courthouse never did fall down.

In 1929, the case was dismissed, a few months after Carey bought the building at a county sale for $60,000 _ more than $35,000 higher than the next highest bidder, an Oklahoma oil refining company.

A Nickerson man filed another bid the day before, offering $25. The cost of tearing the old pile down, he said, would be more than the value of the materials.

As for Carey, he eventually did discontinue use of the brine plant in his original ice and cold storage operation at 226 South Main.

That spot, by the way, is close to the present-day Salvation Army center and across the street from where Westlake Ace Hardware, 215 South Main, stands today.

So walk lightly, folks.