The Wieliczka Salt Mine looks pretty amazing.

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WELL known to European tourists but passed by most globe trotters —who in their hurried journey across seas and continents, have no time to bestow on anything outside of the beaten tracks—are the salt mines of Wieliczka, Galicia, whose origin is lost in the darkness of the times, while their history is traced to about 1000 A. D. After being temporarily abandoned as a consequence of Tartar incursions and the resulting depopulation and impoverishment of the country, they were restored during the reign of Boleslas by immigrating Hungarian miners. The Wieliczka mines, the history of which is closely bound up with that of Poland, during the invasion of the federated troops, were the scene of many combats until 1772, when after the annexation of the country by the Austrians, they were turned over to the new government in whose control they have remained to the present day.

The vicissitudes of history throughout this long period have been accompanied by many changes in the aspect and management of the mines and the once primitive methods have been gradually replaced by the most up-to-date processes, including an extensive use of electricity for the operation of wire-rope railways, and other improvements.

Apart from their interest to engineers, those mines, however, contain a number of attractions that appeal to the mind of ordinary tourists as keenly as to that of the expert. In fact, they are in themselves some kind of underground world with its roads, streets, houses and monuments, hewn in the rock salt that commemorate the art and industry of bygone ages.

In the light of electric lamps and Bengal fires, those underground halls, comprising churches as well as profane buildings, in their weird splendor, remind visitors of the marvels of the Thousand-and-One-Night palaces.

Before being permitted to inspect the mines, tourists are equipped with the miners’ shirts and hoods and are introduced in parties of five each into the upper and lower compartments respectively of the hauling cage, which will carry them down to the first story of the mine, that is, to a depth of about 200 feet. This downward journey occupies but thirty seconds.

At the “eye” of the Rudolph pit, tourists are awaited by a party of miners, each of whom will act as guide to three tourists and light their way with his lantern.

The first station on the round tour through the mines is the St. Anthony Chapel, which during the first decade of the eighteenth century had been hewn by some unknown miner from a single piece of rock salt. The altar of this underground chapel is adorned with twisted columns, to the right and left of which are placed statues of St. Clemence and St. Stanislaus. Two praying monks are kneeling on its steps and in a nook behind it is seen a crucifix with a statue of the Holy Virgin in front of it. Two smaller altars situated to the left and right respectively of the entrance are likewise adorned with figures of saints. The pulpit with the apostles SS. Peter and Paul and a statue of King August II, carved from pure salt spar, in front of the main entrance, is a real masterpiece.

This hall was formerly used for the religious service of the miners, which is now held in the more modern chapel of St. Cunegund.

After visiting this first compartment— a reproduction of which excited much admiration at the Paris Exhibition in 1900 — the Lentow Hall is reached through a pit 210 feet in length. This hall, which had been produced in 1750 by the working of a rock salt wall, was converted into a dancing hall in 1808 during the Russian occupation by General Suvaroff, its floor being lined with planks. The portal and six lustres hewn from crystal salt were made in 1814, in honor of the Russian emperor, Alexander I, who in that year visited the mine. Further decorations of this hall comprise a large transparency in the foreground, symbolizing Knowledge and Work; two statues of Neptune and Vulcan hewn into the rock, and finally a gallery running alongside the hall, the walls of which are lined with salt slabs and planks.

As visitors are generally received here by a merry orchestra, they sometimes indulge in some dancing before proceeding on their way to the Chapel of St. Cunegund, which is their next station, reached through a pit 450 feet in length. This belongs to the most remarkable curiosities of the mines, and having been opened in 1896, is of relatively recent date.

Across forty-six steps hewn out of the salt blocks, visitors climb down to the chapel which forms an amphitheater beside the lower platform destined for the orchestra. On the right hand wall is to i be found a holy water font artistically shaped from salt with a Christ statue— one of the oldest relics—above it. In fact, this underground church, which is 150 feet in length, forty-five feet in width and thirty feet in height, contains a number of religious statues. The pulpit, which is hewn from a single piece of salt, is a real masterpiece due to a local miner. In the foreground will be noted in a nook walled up with salt slabs, the main altar hewn from rock salt with a picture of St. Cunegund, the patron of the mine. The hall is lighted by three chandeliers made from crystal salt, and several candelabra.

The next hall to be inspected is the Michalowice Hall, situated at 327 feet depth on the second main floor of the mine. Being 84 feet in length, 54 feet in width, and 108 feet in height, this hall astounds its visitors by its huge dimensions and especially its enormous height. It is timbered with numberless round trunks arranged so as to form an architecturally pleasant reinforcement of the hall, which during forty-four consecutive years—from 1717 to 1761—was used for working the salt.

In the center of the hall is suspended a colossal chandelier of crystal salt nearly seven feet in diameter and eighteen feet in height, with 200 candles.

When lighted with variegated Bengal fires and lustre candles this hall produces an impression of overwhelming majesty, which is enhanced by the sweet strains of the mining orchestra, installed 011 an elevated platform.

After then traversing the Emperor Francis Hall, which contains two commemorative salt pyramids, the Drozdowice Hall is reached. Work was begun here in 1743 and it is at present eighty-four feet in height. It was considerably higher some years ago, but was partly buried, so that its floor now coincides with the second main floor of the mine. The beautiful wooden galleries * running alongside its walls are used in supervising the latter and impart to the hall a most artistic appearance.

The station next reached on the tourist’s round is the Archduke Frederick Grotto, ninety feet in height, the floor of which lies at a level with the third main floor of the mine. During the descent over serpentine paths, once more is enjoyed the merry strains of the mining orchestra, installed at the lowest point of the hall, in which numberless red flames burning at a distance conjure up the most fantastic regions.

Beside a rock salt lustre and a monument of the Archduke Rainer hewn from pure salt spar in a nook of the hall, one passes on to the third main floor or horizon—situated at 410 feet depth, where a beautifully preserved artistic statue of the Archangel Michael, dating from 1691, can be admired. Thence the way leads to the Count Goluchowski Hall, 153 feet in length and 48 feet in height, which was worked during 1652 to 1656. In 1864, this hall, in honor of the Galician governor, Count A. Goluchowski, was named after him and converted into a mining railway station on account of the number of mining ways terminating there.

Its beautiful platform decorated with a number of colored lanterns and provided with many benches, readily accommodates 400 persons, and tourists generally avail themselves of their stay in this part of the mine for taking a short rest, after which they may watch leisurely the Bengal fires lighted on a pyramid of loose salt blocks. They then visit the last two sights of this underground world, viz.: the Crown Prince Rudolph and Crown Prince Stephany grottoes, connected by a tunnel 31 feet in length. Each of these is 112 feet in length, 45 feet in height and” about 15 feet in width. Numberless lights illuminate the beautiful outlines of an underground lake, from whose salt waters emerges a statue of St. John of Nepomuk, which is surrounded by fir trees and beautiful stalactites.

On the way through those mines one has ample opportunity of observing the miners while at their work, and the photographs represent some typical scenes, as seen wherever there is some mining activity.

On a comfortable and spacious- ferry accommodating twenty-five persons, the opposite shore of the lake is reached, where the strains of music after first sounding quite lustily grow weaker by degrees, finally dying out completely in those underground spaces.

After then traversing a short gallery, 195 feet in length, the return to the Rudolph pit is made, the elevator of which takes the traveler back again to daylight, after an underground journey of nearly two miles, which has left an everlasting impression on the mind.

The salt mines comprise eight main pits, some of which are upwards of 900 feet in depth, in addition to as many as sixty shafts of upwards of two miles aggregate depth. In connection with some of the main pits are installed rock-salt mills and electrical lighting plants, and with the “Elizabeth” pit, a smithy and a finishing shop. In connection with the “Rudolph” pit will be found a steam engine especially intended for operating the elevator conveying the visitors to the mine.

The mines form a lengthy oval figure below the town of considerable dimensions, being twenty-two miles in length and one half mile in central width. The aggregate length of the galleries at present accessible, is upwards of sixty-five miles and that of mining railways twenty-two miles.

Enormous cavities amounting to 106,000,000 cubic feet have been produced during the last century below the town of Wieliczka by working the rock-salt, and as these cavities—kept up artificially by timbering—are continually increasing, the inhabitants of Wieliczka some time ago were fearing lest their town be exposed to the risk of collapsing, and the local building activity was, therefore, temporarily confined to the erection of wooden structures. However, present regulations, according to which those cavities have to be filled in, in due course, gradually removed that apprehension.

From the center of production, the salt is conveyed by horse tramways to the pit, in order thence to be taken to the railway station on a standard-gauge mining railway. The horses which are located in spacious stables are said to thrive relatively well in their underground dwellings.

The shafts of the Wieliczka mines are equipped with all up-to-date arrangements comprising fine steam engines of modern design and are lighted by electricity. Special pumping plants installed in each of them are worked periodically in order to remove any slight amount of brine, part of which is utilized for the improving of fodder. The average supply of brine amounts from 455,000 to 525,000 cubic feet per year.

The mines also contain some plants installed above ground, viz., an electrical station, a smithy, locksmith and carpenter’s shops, a wire-rope railway, three steam mills and a locomotive shed. The central electric station supplies current for the lighting of the mines as well as for part of the town and for operating the wire-rope railway and the wood- working machinery installed in the carpenter’s shop.

The salt mines in each of the shafts are worked independently of one another.

The process of working the mines is as follows: The head of the gallery having been limited by two vertical and two horizontal cuts, the block, thus marked, is loosened by inserting iron wedges or blasting by means of powder mines. This loosening is made possible by the natural cleavage of the salt due to its structure.

Each block is severed by means of wedges or chisels into fragments about 88 pounds in weight, in which shape it is put on the market.

The relatively primitive process based on the use of wedges is generally preferred to blasting because of the greater stability of cavities secured thereby. The salt obtained by blasting is sold either in the shape of fragments to a local soda factory or ground as kitchen or factory salt. Factory salt is either pure or denatured by means of seventy per cent calcinated soda. The last product marketed is fodder salt which is sold in the ground condition denatured with various substances.

The mines are employing upwards of. 1,000 permanent and a number of temporary workmen. The working time is fixed at eight hours in the mines and twelve hours above ground per diem. The yearly production of the Wieliczka salt mines amounts to about 2,420,000 pounds.

The aeration of the mines is mainly natural, artificial ventilation being used only in connection with some remote working sites.

  1. Stephen says: October 3, 20135:42 am

    What an extraordinary place. Thank you for introducing us to it.

  2. Jastrzebowski says: November 22, 20132:39 pm

    Not much has changed 🙂 https://www.google.com/…

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