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Block of halite in the Kansas Salt Mine

Block of halite in the Kansas Salt Mine

    This post describes the sixth day of my journey between Philadelphia and my home in Orem, Utah. I had been in Philadalphia for three months conducting a research fellowship at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) under a generous grant from the American Section of the Société de Chimie Industrielle, and my project was to research and collect media for The Elements Unearthed project, which I’ll be turning into a series of video podcasts and other educational materials. So on my way home, I’ve been visiting and videotaping as many related sites as possible. If you’ve been following along, I’ve been to the Drake Oil Well in Titusville, PA; interviewed Theo Gray in Champaign, IL on the periodic table; toured lead mines in Missouri; and visited the Kansas State Oil Museum in El Dorado, KS. Now I’m in Hutchinson, KS and the journey continues . . . .

Salt layers in the Kansas Salt Mine

Salt layers in the Kansas Salt Mine

    On Saturday, September 5 I drove out of Hutchinson to visit the Kansas Underground Salt Mine. Just as there is a large body of oil and natural gas under Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas there is also a huge layer of salt that covers these same states. At Hutchinson, the layer is 650 feet down and extends hundreds of feet further, with some layers more pure than others. The layer the salt miners were after is over 96% pure and shown here as the whiter area at the bottom of the wall, starting under the distinctive dark stripe about 1/3 of the way down. They continue to mine salt here, spreading out in all directions. The old area of the mine is now used for a tour (they even have a gift shop down here) and as a storage facility for documents. Many movie and TV production companies send their original footage here, as well as props and costumes, to be archived. Although Kansas is fairly humid, any humidity that gets into the mine is absorbed by the salt, so that the temperature and humidity are constantly cool and dry: ideal conditions to archive celluloid footage and other types of documents. Some of the props and costumes are on display in a small museum off the gift shop.

Undercutter machine in the Kansas Salt Mine

Undercutter machine in the Kansas Salt Mine

    Although most salt mines today (such as the one near Moab, Utah) use a hot brine extraction method (pumping hot water into the salt deposit to dissolve the salt, then evaporating the brine in ponds on the surface), this mine still uses more traditional methods because of the purity and accessibility of the salt here. First, they use a machine like a large chainsaw to undercut the face, then drill holes using a hydraulic machine that can drill 4-8 holes at once, then they set charges and blow the face, then muck up the halite and transport it to the surface. The salt here isn’t used for human consumption; most of it goes for rock salt to de-ice the roads in Chicago. Some finds its way to livestock (similar to the halite mined near Salina and Redmond, Utah) and some becomes packaged as rock salt for making ice cream.

Wind turbines under construction near Dodge City, Kansas

Wind turbines under construction near Dodge City, Kansas

    After finishing at the Salt Mine, I drove west on US-50 toward Dodge City. About 18 miles east of Dodge City I came across a large wind turbine farm, many already in operation and a large number getting ready for assembly. In the end, perhaps Kansas will create more energy out of its winds than out of its oil. After eating lunch, I got the heck out of Dodge and hit the trail toward Cimarron (yes, the puns are intentional), then crossed into Colorado. I was trying to beat the sun and make it to Cripple Creek before dark to take a few pictures. But since Colorado is on the eastern edge of the Mountain Time Zone, the sun set earlier than I am used to in western Utah and I made it to Mueller State Park west of Colorado Springs well after dark.

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    I am now safely back in Utah after seven days on the road from Philadelphia. I planned the journey to visit as many sites related to The Elements Unearthed project as possible, and to also take as many back roads as I could (you can’t see much of the real America if you’re driving past at 70 mph on a freeway). My trip was extremely successful, and I have acquired even more photos and video footage. In fact, I was able to do so much that it would be impossibly long to write about it in just one blog post, so I am going to break it up by the sites I visited. If you get the chance, I recommend visiting some of these sites yourself if you are interested in knowing where the elements come from and how they are mined and refined (which is the purpose of this project). I don’t want this to be too much of a travel log, but I saw some wonderful scenery on the way and you might want to take the same roads some day.

Monument at Cemetery Ridge, Gettysburg

Monument at Cemetery Ridge, Gettysburg

    I left Drexel Hill in west Philly on Sunday, Aug. 30 at about 3:00 p.m. and drove up I-476 to I-76 west, then drove past Harrisburg and took PA 15 (the Gettysburg Turnpike) south to Gettysburg, which I had never visited before. It’s not related to this project, so I won’t go into much detail, but I arrived at the new visitor’s center about 5:50 and they close at 7:00. I had enough time to see the movie (excellently done by the History Channel and narrated by Morgan Freeman) and the cyclorama, a 360 degree painting done a few years after the battle depicting the main events at Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863. It’s been moved to this new facility and restored and has only been open for less than a year. 

 

View from Little Round Top, Gettysburg

View from Little Round Top, Gettysburg

 

 

 

 

    After that, I decided to visit the battlefield itself and parked at the cemetery and walked over. The sun was setting and the colors were amazing and just kept getting better – one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen. The stone fences which the Union soldiers used for cover are still there, as is the Angle where the fiercest fighting occurred, with cannons lined up according to where they were during the battle. Each regiment from each state has a marker or statue there, ranging from simple plaques to the ornate Pennsylvania memorial.

Gettysburg Address at Visitors Center Museum

Gettysburg Address at Visitors Center Museum

    Since I got there so late, I decided to camp at Gettysburg instead of traveling on to where I had planned. The next day (Aug. 31, Monday) I traveled back to the battlefield and drove around the outer loop road, hiked to the top of Big Round Top, and visited Little Round Top as well, then saw the museum portion of the visitor’s center. I especially like this window with the Gettysburg Address framed by trees from outside.

    After Gettysburg, I headed west on US 30 through Chambersburg over the Tuscarora Pass (beautiful countryside and quite a view from the pass) and picked up I-76 again for about 15 miles, then exited onto I-99 north toward Altoona. I then exited onto PA 22 to Indiana, PA, then north on PA 219 to Punxsutawney. Yes, that’s right, the official home of Punxsutawney Phil, the Seer of Seers and Prognosticator of Prognosticators. The Official Groundhog of Groundhog’s Day . . . .

 

Punxsutawney Phil in the Groundhog Zoo

Punxsutawney Phil in the Groundhog Zoo

 

    I had noticed that Punxsutawney was pretty much on my route to Titusville in northwest Pennsylvania, so I planned the route to get there. It was near sunset, and I had to stop and find a place to lie down because I had developed a bad earache and needed to put some ear drops in, so I found a small park and laid down on one of the benches. I started noticing a lot of groundhog statues around, and one at the park itself was in front of the library. Then I noticed the sign saying “Groundhog Zoo” and realized that I had accidentally stumbled upon the Real Phil. He was curled up in the window fast asleep (you can see a furry ball in the lower right of the half-moon shaped window – that’s Phil). Fortunately, there was a sign on the wall to his left showing a map to Gobbler’s Knob, which, contrary to how it appears in the movie, is located about two miles out of town on a shady, grass-covered hill. In fact, not much of the movie appears to have been filmed here. Punxsutawney has far more hills than is apparent in the movie.

Replica of the original Drake Oil Well

Replica of the original Drake Oil Well

    After checking out the Knob, I drove up PA 36 past I-80 and on to Sigel, PA where I turned off for Clear Creek State Park to camp for the night. The next morning was quite chilly and mist was curling up off of the river. I drove north on PA 36 to Titusville, arriving about 10:00 and visited the Drake Oil Well site. This was the first commercially successful oil well, drilled in 1859. Last week was the 150th anniversary. Edwin Drake had been sent to see if the puddles of oil that collected on the local stream (Oil Creek) could be made into a commercial venture, since kerosene was just becoming popular (it was a lot more efficient and cheaper than whale oil, which had been used up to this time for lamps). Skimming oil off the surface of the ponds was too slow, so Drake decided to drill. Using a steam engine for power, he constructed a drilling derrick that allowed the rotary motion of the engine to be translated into up and down motion using a rocking arm. A cable with a chisel at the end was suspended from the arm and it was used to punch a hole down into the rock. They soon hit an aquifer and Drake came up with the idea of encasing the hole with pipe to prevent the water from seeping in until they hit bedrock. After weeks of effort, and just as his financial backers were about to pull out, he struck oil at 69 1/2 feet. He was lucky – the oil-bearing sand bar he struck only existed in that one small area. The other oil deposits were much deeper. 

Diorama of Pithole, Pennsylvania

Diorama of Pithole, Pennsylvania

     The news of his success brought on the first oil boom. People poured into the area, and after all the good sites along Oil Creek were claimed, they started drilling away from the creek on local farms and struck oil there, too. One such strike led to the forming of a new town, called Pithole (what a name!) which grew so rapidly that within 30 days there were hotels, saloons, and other establishments common to a boom town. About 1/3 of the people in the town were teamsters and mule skinners; they were used to transport the oil in barrels from Pithole down to the river where it could be freighted to a refinery. These teamsters charged such high fees (it wasn’t easy transporting oil over the muddy roads) that a local businessman came up with an idea to build a pipeline directly from the oil fields to the river. He had to hire Pinkerton detectives to protect the pipeline from the enraged teamsters. Once the oil got to the Allegheny River, it was loaded into barrels onto barges, but the river was too shallow to transport the heavy barges, so a large reservoir was built upstream and when the barges were ready, the water was released suddenly and the wave would float the barges downstream. This technique is called a “pond freshet” and at one point when a barge hit a bridge sideways, all the other barges piled up behind it in a huge mess. Local children would wait with buckets to scoop up any spilled oil so they could sell it. Finally, after the teamsters moved away just over 500 days of existence, Pithole was doomed by the wells drying up (even using nitroglycerin torpedos to shoot the wells wasn’t working). The people moved on, the buildings were dismantled, and Pithole became a farm once more.

Transmitting power to the walking arm in an oil derrick

Transmitting power to the walking arm in an oil derrick

    The petroleum industry had to learn as it went along; this was a new technology. Fires were an ever-present danger. A major disaster struck Oil City, Titusville, and surrounding towns along the rivers when a reservoir upstream was swollen by heavy rains, and the dam washed out, flooding Oil City and Titusville. The oil tanks breached and the petroleum floated on the water. Somehow, it ignited and a wall of flame engulfed the towns. Between the flood and the fire, at least 125 died. 

    The museum and the grounds at Drake Well were well worth the detour to northwest Pennsylvania. It was here that a major industry was born. But as my journey progressed, I was able to discover a later chapter in this story.

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