• Hugh Hanks was 30 years old and the Carey Salt mine was becoming a reality.

'We didn't know what we were drilling'

Sunday, July 22, 1979

He is grey-haired now, his hands age-weathered, his gait slowed, his back arched a bit. He spends his time in his garden, an earthy place of air and space and sunlight.

But his heart is in the ground 600 feet down where memory stirs a recollection of the day in 1923 that gave him one of the greatest thrills of his life.

Hugh Hanks was 30 years old and the Carey Salt mine was becoming a reality. It was 1923 and Emerson Carey was carrying out his dream to buck his competitors and make a mark for himself.

Hanks was a welder then and when the mine shaft was sunk, he was lowered into that dark hole to cut the reinforcing rods that held the shaft from crumbling.

"I got into this bucket that was lowered on a steam hoist all the way down 600 feet. They had an electric light clear to the bottom of the hole.

"When we sunk that hole we didn't know what we were drilling."

After the mine had been sunk they lowered him down in the bucket, with him secured inside by ropes. As he traveled down he saw nature's work, the rainbow tapestry of rock and mineral.

"It's interesting to go down and see them veins of salt." At the age of 86 he remembers vividly. "I got that picture up here," he says tapping his head. "It's quite a thing."

He was with Carey Salt until he retired in 1959.

There was no side track by the mine site then. Hanks says, and when the Hutchinson Interurban Railway System (owned by Carey) halted for the day, the mining equipment would be loaded on a car at midnight and hauled to the site. in the morning the Interurban would be returned to its passenger-carrying mission.

During the early years, "You had not just one job. You might be working on something and a leak in the field would come up and we'd get that fixed."

They were jack-of-all-trades.

He started out working for 12 1/2 cents an hour for what was supposed to be a 10-hour a day, 7-day work week. "As far as a day off a holiday was the same as any other."

The miners themselves were paid by the amount of salt hand-dug that day — per ton.

He sometimes worked 36 hour stretches because the situation warranted it. "You just didn't think about it," he says.

Hanks laid the railroad tracks in the mine that the salt cars continue to ride on today. He also maintained the mine equipment.

Although blasting was normally done at the end of the work day "on account of the odor would get you at that time," blasting was sometimes done during the day. Once, while he was welding a considerable distance from the mining area, a blast caused a chunk of salt to whizz by, narrowly missing him. "It brings your heart up."

For all the movement and blasting and cutting away in the earth's belly there was little fear among the mine workers.

"Only time I got scared I landed down in the dump." The salt skip (the elevator) had been taken to the top of the shaft leaving the shaft exposed. He fell into it, several feet down.

"They were scared. They were all scared," he says, so scared, in fact, the miners were afraid to look into the shaft to see his condition. He was lucky. He was unharmed. Cables had broken his fall.

Hanks admired Emerson Carey, the man who started the salt operation. "He would walk around the (evaporation) plant quite a bit. He would go through the plant and see a small steam leak and say 'that's costing me $50 an hour.' We'd get it fixed."

In 1926, "a cyclone came through Careyville and took a boiler out and knocked our steam line down." Hanks, along with Art Carey, Emerson's brother, began working to restore the evaporation plant to production. That operation was stilled though when Art, absorbed in mechanical repair work, was stricken by a heart attack. Emerson delayed repairs until after the funeral.

Carey Salt was his life, Hanks said. in 1919 the company sold him a house on an acre of ground at 525 Howard in the shadow of the salt plant. He put $50 down and paid $25 monthly until the $2,500 mortgage was paid off. He still lives in the same house.

Hanks remembers the glut of salt plants in the early days, how Emerson rose above the stiff competition that existed then. He says he's proud to have been a part of it.

On the front lawn of his home, in view of the smokestack that rises above the evaporation plant at Carey Salt, Hanks pondered the past. Of Emerson Carey, he says, "They thought they could break him." And then a wry smile crosses his face.