Hidden Underground: How One Kansas Town is Key in Preserving Movie Industry's History

Take a ride down an elevator 650 feet below the surface of Hutchinson, Kansas and you’ll find endless miles of tunnels that lead to active salt mines dating back over a century. 

“They mined out over 980 acres of salt in this mine,” says Lee Spence, president and CEO of Underground Vaults and Storage,  located Hutchinson, Kan. “On a daily basis, they produce right around 5000 tons of salt every day.”

About 80 % of this salt is used to treat roads during the winter, the remainder is used for agricultural purposes.  As the salt was mined, vast areas underground were now large empty spaces.  Some of the company’s owners were connected to the World War II Monuments Men group who worked to recover valuable items Hitler had seized and stored in salt mines in German controlled areas. 

“The idea kind of surfaces from there that we could do the same thing and store valuable records and artifacts, store it right here in the middle of the state of Kansas,” says Spence.

The company began in the late 1950s and has continued to grow here in the salt caverns below ground.

“Behind me is a private storage area called a bay and we have 106 of these bays that’s 15,000 square feet, and we actually just build shelving and we set it up and we set it up to actually store - this one happens to be movie film,” adds Spence.

And movie film alone accounts for 30% to 40% of their business. 

“We get a lot of the major motion picture studios that store with us because of the preservation of the film that the salt provide and it’s the security, as well,” he says.

The temperature underground is a constant 68 degrees with humidity between 40% and 45%.  And many directors and motion picture companies still like to shoot on film.  There are rows and rows of boxes here – for the film industry alone with some works that date to the early days of movie making.

“We go back to the 1920s during the silent films, the black and white films, I’ve seen some films with Charlie Chaplin’s name on them,” says Spence.

Spence can’t mention all the original films stored here, but he can certainly rattle off some titles that just about everyone would know. 

“The classics like ‘Wizard of Oz’, we also have ‘Gone with the Wind’,  ‘Ben Hur’, the ‘Star Wars’ collection is all here, as well,” he says.

Interestingly, movie companies often retrieve those old films to use in new movie scenes or other projects.  You can’t tour the storage side of the business, but you can take salt mine tours which show how they use the mines for securing film and things like medical records, employer files and much more.  And the business continues to grow because it seems all of us could always use a little extra space to store something…

“Yeah we’re always pack rats and people are always leery of throwing something away because you always might need something,” says Spence.

There are row and rows of storage shelves here, everything from classic movies to tv shows  plus medical records and much more, just part of the vast storage network in this salt mine 650 feet below ground. 


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