The salt on your roads comes from this mine in Kansas
Winter road cleanup starts more than six hundred and fifty feet below ground in the central Kansas town of Hutchinson. Crews at Hutchinson Salt Company work year-round, digging salt from one of the world’s largest salt deposits for twenty hours a day, six days a week.
This mine is one of fourteen such operations in the country, including three in Kansas, and it helps produce most of the road salt needed to keep the U.S. moving in winter months. The Hutchinson mine alone produces about five hundred thousand tons of salt each year.
Overland Park and Lenexa are among hundreds of cities that order salt from here. Buchanan and Daviess counties in Missouri also get their salt here — as does Chicago, which orders delivery by railcar from Hutchinson.
Still, it may not be enough — especially if the lower Midwest faces another long, cold winter.
“With any significant winter, there’s going to be a shortage,” says Andy Bingham, the mine’s vice president. “Last winter, we were literally scraping the corners of our storage areas.”
Last year, the end of winter called for eighty road trucks queued up outside the mine for up to twelve hours so they could haul more salt. Mining crews doubled up shifts for seventy consecutive days, shutting down for just a few hours each night to safely blast more sections of the mine.
The additional shifts meant they produced an extra one hundred thousand tons of road salt.
If you want to see where the salt on your roads comes from, Hutchinson Salt Company also happens to be the only such mine in the country open to visitors. Strataca, the Underground Salt Mine Museum, lets visitors down the shaft to explore the mines. Salt mine guides explain why Kansas has salt deposits, what it’s like to work underground all day and how technology has changed since the mine opened in the 1920s.
Pass the salt
Tony Hofmann, director of public works for Overland Park, is responsible for making the city’s 2,000 miles of streets as safe as possible for winter driving. That includes ordering and storing more than 14,000 tons of road salt.
“It varies by each event, depending on snow, ice, temperature and humidity,” Hofmann says. “There’s a real science to keeping our roads safe.”
For example, when the temperatures get below 10 degrees and depending on humidity, Hofmann’s team mixes in magnesium chloride to ignite the melting process.
Most municipalities bid to buy salt in April or early May, often while the winter’s last snow is still on the ground. Contracts are awarded by June, and delivery is wrapped up by late August.
Hofmann likes to keep about 2,500 tons in reserves for potential late winter storms. Last season, Overland Park was down to about 1,000 tons after ordering 2,000 tons more from Hutchinson.
In the event of a mild winter, the salt is saved for the next year -— and people like Hofmann sleep a little more easily.
GO: When the roads are free of snow and ice, visit Strataca at 3650 E. Avenue G, Hutchinson, Kan. Open 9 am- 5 pm Tuesday-Saturday, 1-5 pm Sunday. 620-662-1425, underkansas.org.