Veteran salt miner recalls the way it was

Sunday, September 27, 1987

Thirty-eight years of working in a salt mine, blasting through thousands of feet of packed sodium chloride every year, will leave its mark on a man. And on his surroundings.

"To this day my cars have a tendency to rust out worse than other cars," muses Vernon Horton.

"Auto body shops have probably made more money off of me than Carey did."

A graduate of what is now Emporia State University, Horton was set for a career as a grade school and high school teacher in 1936 when he discovered that he could get $10 more a week to work in the Carey salt mine.

At first, he simply shoveled salt, then worked for a time drilling the holes where explosive - dynamite, in the beginning - was placed to shoot 10 by 10 by 50 foot sections of rock salt out of the wall.

But for most of his 38 years with Carey Salt Co., Horton was the powder man - the one responsible for actually placing and triggering the charges.

"It never bothered me," he says. "A dynamiter is safer than a truck driver."

When Horton began his career in the salt mines, the mining industry had not yet invented modern conveniences like mechanical loaders and conveyor belts to carry salt to the mine elevator, called a skip.

A miniature railroad, complete with cars and electric engines, carried loads of rock salt from the working face, the part of the mine where the salt is removed, to the skip. All the salt had to be shoveled into the cars by hand.

Then, a machine called an undercutter was used to cut a gash 10 feet deep and 50 feet wide (these days it's 40 feet wide) into the salt face at floor level. Then holes were drilled into the face in three rows to hold the charges.

After awhile dynamite was abandoned, and Horton started using a mixture of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and diesel fuel as his explosive.

With all the salt being blasted into the air, ventilation was sometimes less than could be desired.

"You couldn't see a light bulb 20 feet away. It isn't as bad (today) as it used to be."

Salt-laden air can produce some interesting effects. A concrete block that had not yet been completely cured was once taken down to the salt mine during the construction of a secure area for Underground Vaults and Storage, Horton said.

Salt in the air was drawn to the moisture still in the concrete.

"Salt grew on the outside that thick," Horton said, holding his fingers about an inch apart. "(It) just looked like a wool fleece."

In the airways that bring down fresh air from the surface for the miners to breathe, "saltcicles" can form with a tiny hole in the middle through which salt water drips.

And although miners today say they don't get unusually thirsty working in the salt mine, conditions were different 50 years ago.

"I started out drinking a gallon a day," Horton said. "You carried your own, (and) guarded your jug like it was gold."

After he got used to the environment, Horton was able to cut back his water ration to 11/2 quarts a day. But miners always joked about the high amount of salt in their systems.

"One fella had lead in his ass; we'd say he was salt-logged."