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Secure and Down a Salt Mine: An Interview with Underground Vaults’ Jeff Ollenburger

Underground Vaults

I was fascinated when I learned that the Johnny Carson archives had been kept in a salt mine in Hutchinson, Kansas. Why a salt mine? Why Kansas? It seemed like such a strange detail to just throw out there in all of the articles about the digital conversion of the archives. So, curiosity sparked, I tracked down the company responsible: Underground Vaults. Jeff Ollenburger was nice enough to chat with me. All shall be explained.

Widgett: If you would, please, sir, state your name and occupation for the record.

Jeff Ollenburger: Okay, my name is Jeff Ollenburger. I’m the business development and sales manager for Underground Vaults and Storage.

[ad#rightpost]W: Okay, excellent. Now, I know that the name of the place is Underground Vaults and when I was looking at the website, it almost looks like it’s misleading, because it implies that you guys are probably less cool than I think you might actually be. Because I’m thinking about just a vault underground, and you guys are actually based–at least some of your underground facilities, in mines, correct?

JO: That is correct. I think the hardest thing to convey to people who have not visited any of our facilities, particularly the Hutchinson Salt Mine, is the size and the scope of it. You’re correct–it’s so much more than just a vault. Underground at Hutchinson in the salt mine, we’re talking 40-50 acres of storage under one roof, so…I guess, trying to convey the size and scope is one of the more difficult challenges we have when describing our business.

W: It sounds like it. Now, can you give us the Reader’s Digest version of how all of this got started?

Civil Defense stores at Underground Vaults
From 1968, emergency rations and supplies kept for civil defense purposes at the Underground Vaults facility.

JO: Absolutely. Well, like most great business stories in America, it started out of need. It dates back to the Cold War era in the late fifties…a group of Kansas businessmen were seeing a need in the business community to store sensitive and vital records and information underground. It was the height of the Soviet Union and United States’ tension in the Cold War. Nuclear warfare was top of mind for everybody, and to get everything that was important underground was a key driving element of the security of the day, and it was that need to find a location that led that group to Hutchinson, to the salt mine. Here we’re in a salt mine that has been in operation since the twenties. And space was not a limiting factor–there was plenty of room, controlled access in and out, and a perfect storage environment, so it just kinda came to be that it was the ideal spot.

W: Now, when you say an “ideal storage environment,” I’m thinking that, being underground, the temperature’s pretty well constant and manageable, correct?

JO: That is correct. The temperature is a constant 68-70 degrees year-round; no matter what the weather is topside, underground is always perfect. Humidity is around 40-45%, and then you encase everything in the salt environment, which has a preservative quality to it, and it is a very stable environment. It’s just an ideal location to put just about any type of archival material.

W: Are there any other factors that you guys have to take into account? Because temperature and humidity are obvious ones–I know there’s refrigeration in some facilities–but is there anything beyond that that you guys had to put in, or is it basically just a mine with shelving? What are we talking about?

JO: Well, the process for us is that we go into places that have been mined out already, and the salt mining process doesn’t carve out the corridors in the way that we like to finish them out. So our process is to go in after the miners and raise the ceiling heights and smooth out the floors and get those ready for storage. We have about 100 bays that are 50 feet wide by 300 feet long spread out over the underground “campus,” if you will…and we’re free from vermin, there’s no water, there’s no environmental factors whatsoever in terms of weather…so everything is just perfect every day.

W: Hmm. Now, you were talking about how you go in after the miners get done…is this still an active mine in some places?

JO: Yes.

W: And I don’t know much about salt mines…so I could go off somewhere down there and if I needed some salt for my salad at lunch, I could just knock some off the wall? What are we talking about here?

A salt mine in Kansas
Inside a Kansas salt mine.

JO: (laughs) Well, Hutchinson is located on top of one of the largest salt deposits in North America. It actually extends through Kansas all the way down to New Mexico. So it’s a very large pocket of salt. The salt industry has been in Hutchinson since the twenties, and the mine that we are in is used primarily for road salt…it’s the rock salt that they pull out of the ground and they’ve been doing that since the early twenties, and they’re still doing it today. The entire underground mine complex is close to 900 acres.

W: Wow.

JO: We occupy about 40-50 acres, and with our agreement with the salt company, as soon as they’re done mining an area, it’s available to us to store into. So we really can grow at quite an exponential pace and never fill up the location.

W: Wow. So you have no expansion worries whatsoever, it sounds like.

JO: That’s correct. It’s taken us 51 years to put in about 50 acres, so when you think about that as it relates to the 900 acres that’s growing every day…we’re not worried about where the next location is in Hutchinson at this point.

W: Yeah, apparently so. I’m kind of surprised, because it says on the website that you’ve got some other facilities in some limestone mines…is that simply for being in different locations? Because you’re not running out of space in Hutchinson.

JO: Very much so…it’s the geographic reach of our company. There’s some big industry and some customers of ours that started in Hutchinson and have relocated operations, or have facilities in different regions of the country and they’ve asked us in many cases to set up a storage center around them, and that’s kind of how we’ve grown over time. A lot of our records are everyday records, so there’s a lot of in-and-out; someone will need something pulled every day, and it’s just not geographically reasonable to do everything from this one location, so that’s why we’ve put our fingerprints in different regions.

W: Right. Now, what is the number one thing that you look at when you’re running one of these facilities? Like as far as a concern goes…because it almost sounds like all you need is a hole in the ground and somebody could be competition for you guys, so how do you guys set yourselves apart other than, I guess, getting to the holes in the ground first?

JO: Right. Well, safety and security are the driving factors in this industry. Without security, you don’t have anything. So we believe that the salt mine facility here, as an example, is very unique in that manner. It’s a 650-foot vertical access mine shaft. Technically there’s only, you know, one way in and one way out; it’s very controlled. And then the mine itself–you have to be in a mine that’s stable and dry and usable for storage. There’s plenty of mines across the country–in fact, there’s other mining facilities in Kansas (because there’s a lot of salt production here)–and those from a geological standpoint don’t have the same structure as our location and they’re just not suitable for a storage environment. Limestone mines are a little different in that you’re going to have some moisture in some of those and it’s how best you can control that. So just because you have a hole in the ground, it doesn’t mean it’s the ideal hole in the ground.

W: (laughs) That should almost be on a brochure. “We have the Ideal Hole in the Ground.”

JO: (laughs) That’s true.

W: Now, this was set up during the Cold War, you said, and you were mentioning specifically for business continuation in case of something awful happening that the records would be secure and underground. Do you guys have any government stuff stored there as well?

JO: Yes, our client base stretches across almost all industry, including government, corporate, and personal, so there’s a little bit of everything here.

W: And is there anything spicy there, or is it just what you’re saying with everyday records, like congressional expense records from 1961…or….?

JO: (silence)

W: Or…can you even comment?

JO: (pause) I’m sure there’s a whole host of interesting things underground that I can’t talk about.

W: I see. Now, as far as stuff you can talk about, I know on the website it says that you guys can store anything, and it sounds like if you have bays that size and facilities that size that there would be very little that you guys probably couldn’t store (again, what drew me to you was the recent story about the Carson archives that were kept at the Hutchinson facility). So what is the strangest thing that you guys have ever been asked to store…that you can actually admit to?

JO: Well, most of the strange things come from personal collectors that want to “salt away” their items, if you will. We’ve got some wedding dresses underground that have certainly a sentimental value to the individual. I think we’ve been asked to store taxidermied animals, different things…you know, never know what’s important to certain people. Some of that we turn away because it just doesn’t fit what we want to be doing, but generally speaking, if it fits on the elevator and can come down the mine shaft, we can find a place for it.

W: Now, how big is that elevator? Because I know you said a 650-foot vertical access…I’m assuming it’s a pretty large elevator, right?

JO: Well, it’s certainly larger than a standard hotel elevator, if you will. It’s a double-decker freight slash passenger elevator that can hold 30 people at one time…it’s oh, probably 6 feet by 10 feet on each deck, so a decent amount of space…you can get a couple of skids on each deck.

W: And in regards to the Carson archives–it was funny when that article came out because I had been wondering where that stuff was (because I’d been hoping to see a lot of it)–it sounds like you specialize in that sort of thing, because I’m sure they didn’t just come to you out of the blue….do you have a lot of film archival stuff at the facility there?

JO: To quantify that, I would say we have millions of film titles and television titles stored underground.

W: Wow. That is pretty fantastic.

Mr. Freeze in the salt mine
The Mr. Freeze costume from Batman and Robin, on temporary display at the museum next to the Underground Vaults facility.

JO: Really our specialty industry segment is the Hollywood motion picture and television industry. And again, for reasons of geographic separation for them and ultimate security and preservation in a natural climate…it’s just an ideal location for them.

W: And when did that get started as part of your specialization…and this might be before you got there, of course, but I’m you probably know…because I’m sure once you realize you’ve filled up on everything you can from the businesses, then you say, “boy, we’ve got a lot of space down here! What do we want to do next?” At what point do you go after a different industry and try to become their provider of choice for this type of service?

JO: I think that’s the great challenge of any sales organization, no matter what the industry. We started with the film industry back in the sixties; it came on board relatively early in our life cycle of as a company and it’s just grown exponentially from that point with the establishment of the right contacts and getting the right people in here to see what we had. As it relates to what the next thing is, I think that’s the challenge we wake up with every day is what’s out there, what’s the next thing–that’s what keeps our sales people motivated.

W: I’m sure. And now, of course, with everything going digital, you’re probably looking at it going, “God, guys, we’re never going to run out of space! We’re never going to fill this place! Now there’s no boxes of documents…we just have DVDs and hard drives!”

JO: And that’s true to an extent, certainly the electronic storage, everything is getting smaller. Where we used to have bays of back-up tapes and things of that nature, that medium is getting smaller and smaller. I think there will always be paper storage and hard asset storage…it may just be coming from different industry than we’re used to seeing right now.

W: Right. Well, speaking as someone who was in the corporate world for twenty years: the paperless office, I think, is a myth and will never fully happen.

JO: Right. I think the interesting or certainly the notable part of the concept of a paperless office is that even in many of those cases there’s a paper backbone behind it somewhere. We saw that recently with a client of ours who was trying to go paperless, had a lot of digital assets on their hard drive, and showed up for work one day and it just wasn’t there. And so in addition to accessing their backup tapes in storage, they had to run operationally off of paper backups that they had. So I don’t know if you’ll ever be able to get away from the paper entirely.

W: And you’re talking about the bays of back-up…actual tapes and boxes of documents, I’m sure that you’ve got stuff in storage that is what we’d call the “legacy media”…so it almost seems like a tour of your facility, done in the right order, would be an interesting history of the evolution of storage and media. You could almost make that a separate tour of your facility. “And these, boys and girls, were reel-to-reel tapes. Here’s one; you can feel it–doesn’t it feel interesting?”

JO: (laughs) Exactly. I think it speaks to the rapid changes in technology, and it doesn’t take a person long to walk through some of the older storage bays that maybe only date back 15-20 years to see how that has changed dramatically.

W: Oh, yes. I assume you might have a couple of long columns of punch card, as well, still sitting around somewhere.

JO: A little bit of everything, yes, from microfiche, microfilm, old reel-to-reels, digital/analog tapes, you name it–it’s kind of a warehouse and a museum of information.

W: So what you’re saying is you basically have the warehouse from the end of Raiders underground.

JO: There are certainly locations underground where you feel like that’s very much a true movie on the storage side.

W: Now, I know that you were talking about the single point of entry and how it’s as secure as possible unless the Mole Men show up or something…has anyone ever tried to break into one of these mine facilities?

That answer and the rest of the interview follows on Page 2.