Hollywood and 'Preppers' Are Preparing for Doomsday in This Kansas Salt Mine
A trip inside a vault buried 650 feet under the middle of the country,
Lee Spence stands in his Kansas City limestone vault. Image: David Osit for Motherboard
If we're ever forced underground thanks to a nuclear winter, you could do worse than the salt mines of central Kansas.
Living 650 feet beneath a bunch of wheat fields, parking lots, and nothingness, you'd have plenty to do: It's here where every major Hollywood studio, from Disney to 20th Century Fox to Warner Brothers, has decided to store copies of nearly every single movie they've ever created. You'll find original copies of everything from A Goofy Movie to the Harry Potter series to Charlie Chaplin's old films. In fact, the cavernous, hollowed-out mines operated by a company called Underground Vaults and Storage actually is the doomsday plan for a handful of anonymous, paranoid preppers.
"I can't mention their names, but, as part of their agreement with us, there are probably a half dozen people who have apartments down there," Lee Spence, the company's president, told me when I visited earlier this month. "They have their own supplies, it is their backup plan in the case of a nuclear attack or something."
Hutchinson, Kansas, or, more specifically, the vast expanses of space underneath Hutchinson, has long been considered one of the safest places in the country. A massive prehistoric body of water called the Western Interior Sea dried up millions of years ago, leaving thousands of feet worth of rock salt behind, which has been exploited since the early 1900s by dozens of different salt companies, including Morton and the Hutchinson Salt Company.
It turns out that a salt mine is a wonderful place to store your valuables: It's incredibly dry down there, microbes that could eat away at valuables can't survive in the mines, rock salt doesn't burn, and it's always a wonderful 68 degrees. In fact, at the Strataca salt museum, fashioned out of an adjacent abandoned salt mine, decades-old toilet paper, magazines, soda cans, and all sorts of trash litter the place, looking as new as the day an old, rickety wooden elevator brought it down from the "topside."
That the mines are in Kansas is another bonus: The state isn't much of a military target, and the mines are sufficiently far underground so as to be safe from a nuclear blast, flooding, hurricanes, or much of anything else you can think of. Even in the event of a highly unlikely earthquake, everything down there should be fine.
"Our geology team has determined that, should there be an earthquake, the salt cavity would just sway with the earthquake and it wouldn't buckle or break," Spence said.
Besides the movie studios (which also store original scripts, props, costumes, and outtakes down there) and the preppers, Spence's clients include major banks, Fortune 500 companies, oil and gas companies, a handful of governments from all over the world, and private citizens.
Many companies store enough data and documents that they would be able to totally rebuild their business should there be a disaster above ground. During the Cold War, the US government leased an apartment down there that could have been used to help rebuild the government if necessary. It was once a national fallout shelter, as well.
"We have a few companies that require this as their disaster recovery plan. We have a kitchen facility, refrigerators, stoves, ovens, sleeping areas," Spence said. "We have bottled water and food containers to last you a couple years."
You can score a small room for $500 a year; much larger spaces can cost up to $10,000 per year. There is a catch, however: The underground generators only have enough fuel to last you a couple months, so you'd end up eating a lot of meals in "mine darkness" if you decided to live out the rest of your days down there.
Unfortunately, Spence couldn't take me down into the vault side of the salt mine, though I did walk around the Strataca part of the mine for a couple hours. It's dark, cold, kind of mind blowing, and I'm not totally sure I'd want to live there.
Spence was able, however, to show me a satellite facility the company has in Kansas City, housed in a prehistoric-looking limestone cave with massive entrances and space to drive your car right up next to the vaults. The limestone caves offer many of the same security features as the salt ones, but aren't quite as far underground.
Nonetheless, there are thousands upon thousands of films in there, housed in what's essentially a giant refrigerator. It was 103 degrees in Kansas City the day I visited; it was 39 degrees in the vault. In this facility, just like in Hutchinson, workers barcode reel after reel of classics so that they can be retrieved and shipped back to the studios should they need them for a screening or a quality check. I particularly geeked out over a stack of original reels from The Shining and Full Metal Jacket, but everywhere I turned there was a movie I'd either seen or wanted to see.
Even if you lived down here, I thought, you'd never be able to watch all of them. And, nuclear disaster topside or not, I couldn't help but thinking that these relics will probably stick around much longer than any of us will.
Editor's note: Additional photos from this report were shot as part of the Photos from Beyond program, in partnership with LG—click to see more photos from this series.