Underworld: Early tourists experience complete darkness, amazing cavernous sights in the Kansas Underground Salt Museum

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Tour guide Gayle Ferrell asked for a lights-out, and utter blackness descended on the mine visitors.

Aaahhhhh.

"Pretty cool, huh?" Ferrell asked.

Eyes can't adjust to the total darkness, and you can't even see your hand, she noted.

Visitors treated to a sneak peek of the future Kansas Underground Salt Museum, East Avenue G and Airport Road, are seeing - or not - some interesting things.

"It's outstanding," said Lavonda Norrod, ticket and travel director at McConnell Air Force Base, Wichita.

Norrod has taken three tours in the past month and said she discovers something new about the geological marvel with each trip.

The Reno County Historical Society is honoring tours previously booked for the museum, which was expected to be open by now. On Tuesday morning, Village Tours & Travel, Wichita, delivered a busload, and senior citizens belonging to the XYZ ("Xtra Years of Zest") Club of Andover United Methodist Church also showed up for a scheduled tour.

Museum volunteers formed their own line to greet the stream of visitors walking through the door.

"OK, let's put this on you first," said Leonard Railsback, slipping an emergency breathing apparatus over the head of an arriving tourist.

"Restroom facilities are back there," said Ray Mora, as he and other volunteers repeatedly warned that there are no restrooms - yet - in the 650-foot-deep museum.

"Tighten me up," asked one woman wearing a wobbly hard hat, and a volunteer twisted the hat knob for a more snug fit.

After a minute and 10 seconds, the double-decker elevator reached the bottom of the mine. Electric trams ferried visitors past a display of old Carey Salt Co. train cars and an old undercutter-mining machine. Mostly, though, early visitors see cavernous spaces as they ride by sites designated for such uses as a history of Hutchinson, the gift store and an events room.

Work on exhibits is ongoing, said Reno County Historical Society board President Cynda Wright, and the mine-scape changes frequently. She isn't giving up on a late 2006 museum opening, but plumbing and electrical work, plus installation of more flooring - saltcrete and concrete, depending on the area - must be completed.

"We don't know when that magic date is going to be," Wright said.

A bonus for early birds is a swing through part of Underground Vaults & Storage Co.'s operations, if a company official is available to accompany the group.

Underground Vaults won't be on the official tour, although a museum exhibit is planned.

Village Tours & Travel Vice President Jeff Arensdorf has his eye on June 2008, when hundreds of dancers will descend on Wichita for the National Square Dance Convention. He expects 500 to 1,000 people could do-si-do to the underground salt museum before they promenade home.

And visitors to the finished museum won't miss the chance to experience total darkness. It will be part of the ride.