6 May 2008

A Napoleon script's hiding place

This article from eight years ago, Mar 12, 2000, describes the storage facility where a copy of a draft of Kubrick's Napoleon script was found.

Kansas salt mine warehouse preserves nation's treasures
By ROXANA HEGEMAN | Associated Press Writer

HUTCHINSON -- The original film negative for "The Wizard of Oz." A collection of New York newspapers dating to the assassination of President Lincoln. Secret U.S. government documents. Thousands of medical research biopsies encased in wax. All these -- and so much more -- are buried 645 feet beneath the Kansas prairie in a vast underground salt mine warehouse teeming with treasures and oddities from across the nation. "It's a kind of Noah's Ark -- without the animals," says Lee Spence, president of Underground Vaults & Storage, Inc.

The Hutchinson company has built a thriving business in the mined-out sections of the salt mine, where temperature and humidity stay at near ideal conditions for preserving paper and film brought here from around the world. The caverns, accessible only by a rumbling mine elevator, are safely beyond the reach of tornadoes, floods and earthquakes. These salt deposits -- formed 230 million years ago as the inland sea that once covered Kansas evaporated -- are now being wired with the latest technology to give companies around the world high-speed data access to records stashed within a prehistoric formation underneath Kansas wheat fields.

Wearing a hardhat and carting his requisite canister of oxygen, Spence steps onto the mine elevator -- actually, more of a hoist with an aboveground operator to run it -- for the minute-long ride. He flips off his flashlight for a few seconds, and blackness engulfs the lurching contraption. "See how black it can get," he says. It is clear he enjoys showing off his realm to visitors. The flashlight back on, he aims the beam at a mass of wires running alongside the hoist. These link the world below to civilization above. This is how they run the lines down to link the computers, he explains. The elevator slows to a stop at the bottom, the equivalent of 60 stories below ground. The salt bed -- discovered in 1889 while drilling for oil -- is 100 miles long by 40 miles wide, and 325 feet thick. A miner greets him. "How's the weather up there?" It is common question for those who spend their waking hours deep in the bowels of the earth. The temperature here stays at around 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and the humidity is between 40 and 45 percent year round.

For the next 30 minutes, it is the warehouse's turn to use the elevator, and the mine's conveyor belt and rock crushing equipment are mostly quiet now as he passes them. Spence quickly reaches a doorway below the sign for Underground Vaults and steps inside. The low salt ceiling and antique mining equipment greet visitors for a few feet, before opening up to 10-foot ceilings and a friendly receptionist answering the phones. For a moment, you could almost forget you were sandwiched inside a salt formation. The rough rock walls and ceilings are painted white to keep the salt dust down. The cement floors are level. There is a lunchroom with a refrigerator and microwave for workers. And bathrooms. The storage vaults use only a few of the caverns left behind from salt mining activities. The company has available 800 acres of mined-out space, but so far has used just 12 acres of it. Another 26 acres are under development now, Spence said.

Meanwhile, The Hutchinson Salt Co. continues its mining operations just 1 1/2 miles away in the same formation, with warehouse employees sharing the mine elevator and much of the infrastructure that brings fresh air, electricity and phones deep underground. Among the biggest customers are California movie companies, who find the Kansas salt mines ideal for storing original film negatives along with all the outtakes from their productions. Spence stops at one of the salt bays and points out a few titles: "Journey to the Center of the Earth," "Gone With The Wind," "Ben Hur," and "Star Wars." All the Mash television episodes are stored down here, as are old silent movies.

In the past two months alone, 20th Century Fox has sent 22 truckloads of film here. "It is so cheap to store down here -- a lot cheaper than California," he says. It costs companies $3 a square foot to store their records here. That compares to between $20 and $30 a square foot for storage in places like California, where companies have to build a building, run air conditioning and heating and provide security systems. None of those costs are incurred in the salt mines, where temperatures are naturally constant and access is limited to the one operator-controlled mine elevator, he says.

That makes it a favorite resting place for oil and gas companies to stash their seismic data and leases. Insurance companies keep their original policies here. Government offices store property records and parking tickets, among a slew of other documents. Architects put their blueprints here. A California company stores its old stock certificates in old wooden fruit crates. Hospitals and doctors keep old medical patient files here. Accountants store tax records. Even the federal government has a locked salt bay down here for its secret paperwork. And the salt warehouse also caters on a limited basis to individuals. There are a couple of old wedding dresses down here that have been passed down from generation to generation. Coin collections are stored here, someone even left a collection of newspapers dating to the early 1800s.

It can cost as little as $130 annually for a bit of storage space down here. About 65 warehouse employees work underground -- pulling record requests from companies, computerizing records for others and bringing more boxes down. The company runs two below ground shifts daily. Among those employees is Shirley Byard, who has worked 14 years underground. Her job is to keep the complex presentable and the kitchen done up, as she puts it. "We are like family here," she says. "If we get an oddball (employee) down here, they don't last." It takes some getting used to working below ground. Except for an emergency, the elevator out only runs at specified times each day. And after a day's work you can taste the salt on your skin.

The warehouse firm, which has a 99-year renewable lease with the salt mine, has been stashing things here since 1959. The idea to store archives underground was sparked by one of the company's directors who served in World War II, Spence says. He remembered that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had stored lots of items in an underground shelter as a way to preserve them. The privately held company has $8 million in gross revenues and 1,500 customers, Spence says. It also has an underground complex in Kansas City, Mo., which is accessible by truck and runs aboveground records centers in Topeka and Wichita.
The warehouse company slogan is "For Security. Forever." It's nice to know that the script is as safe against catastrophe as Dr. Strangelove was in his mineshaft, at least until the lease runs out on the storage facility.

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