We all use table salt, sometimes probably too much of it! It is virtually everywhere and it is plentiful throughout the world. In central New York State, the Retsof Salt Mine, in the Finger Lakes region provided salt for most of the northeastern states. As early as August 30, 1884, that mine in Livingston County, New York, just south of Rochester, opened and began operation and eventually became the second-largest salt mining business in the world encompassing several thousand acres. It was situated some 1200 feet underground. Interestingly, most of the miners working there were Italian immigrants, some 200 of them working seven days a week at $1.40 per day. Little shanty towns dotted the landscape there to accommodate the entire mining crew.
One hundred eleven years later, on March 12, 1994, that enormous salt mine made instant history when an earthquake-like tremor of 3.1 magnitude on the Richter Scale occurred in the region. The roof of a huge part of the Retsof mine suddenly collapsed. The mine then began flooding at the rate of 5000 gallons per minute. Fortunately, there were no deaths attributed to its collapse. Within days a large lake formed on the land above the mine. The mine was experiencing its death knell. All the mining equipment was totally lost forever. It officially closed in September 1995 when a skeletal crew did some final clean-up work. To this day sink holes continue to form, swallowing 70-foot trees and buildings. Many wells are permanently ruined by brine that continues to seep in through the veins, even now. Several square miles of the Genesee Valley actually sank up to eight feet. Much controversy arose regarding this disaster. The most prevalent theory was that a major supporting salt column was mistakenly removed thus causing instability and the subsequent collapse.
In another part of the world, a salt mine unknown to many of us at the time, can lay claim to the most stunningly beautiful works of sculpture ever seen by mankind. While travelling through Poland, near Krakow we were introduced to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Awe-inspiring, to say the least, this is an understatement of a spiritually-inspiring cavern. Since 2007, however, mining operations there have totally ceased due to rising water levels. Only the second level remains open to tourists. Below it are seven other levels formerly used to extract salt. There are four chapels in the cavern, all carved out of salt, the first almost 400 years old. The 100-foot-high ceilings are mind-boggling. Recesses in the walls throughout the cavernous interior are filled with life-sized salt replicas of DaVinci’s Last Supper, Jesus’ draped body with Mary standing next to him as well as a larger-than-life statue of Italy’s Pope John Paul II draped in his papal robes, and dozens more!
Not all statues are religious. One area humorously depicts Snow White’s seven dwarves, pitching shovels of salt! In recent years commercialism seems to have made inroads on this historic gem. There is even a brass band that plays on holidays. Weddings can be held there by special arrangement.
Wieliczka is truly a prized world attraction and, if travelling in Europe it should be on one’s to-do list. It is Poland’s contribution to one of the world’s most precious works of art.