"I thought you would be," Patty said.

She pulled the tram next to a pile of rock salt and invited us to take a piece home. Just don't climb on the pile, she warned. "Find yourself a souvenir that's millions of years old!"

From the get-go, you know that this adventure through the bowels of the Earth is no trip to Disney World. You can't even go underground without first watching a safety film explaining the three-pound "self-rescuer" you have to wear at all times, like the miners.

"It changes carbon monoxide, which is a byproduct of fire, into harmless carbon dioxide," the film narrator explains. "The mouthpiece will get hot, maybe even hot enough to burn your lips and mouth. Don't spit it out! This means the chemical reaction is working.

"Now that you're wondering what you've gotten yourself into, we want you to know that the salt will not burn, and there are no (harmful) gases in this mine, as a coal mine has. No one has ever had to use the self-rescuer in this mine."

Right about then is when I started wondering who wanted to put a tourist attraction next to purgatory.

Turns out his name is Jay Smith, and he lives in South Dakota. But in December 1995 he moved to Hutchinson to be executive director of the Reno County Historical Society.

One of the first places he visited was a historical placard marking the spot where salt was first discovered in this city. The marker was overgrown with weeds "and kind of forgotten," Smith recalled.

He'd noticed lots of places around town named Salt City this and Salt City that. But at the historical museum "there wasn't really a lot about salt on display. Here was this town's namesake, and it wasn't being fully discussed," said Smith, now the state museum director for the South Dakota State Historical Society.

One day he chanced to visit Underground Vaults & Storage, a business that leases space in the mine from Hutchinson Salt Co. (Underground Vaults also runs an underground storage complex in Kansas City.)

"It looked like you were going to a new world," Smith said. "I'd been in coal mines and gold mines before, so I was happy to see wide open spaces because it made you feel comfortable."

That's when the idea hit: Why not put a museum down there?

Talking to people around town he found that there'd been similar talk back in the '50s, when Carey Salt gave public tours of its working mine. In 1952, almost 9,000 people visited.

The tours eventually got in the way of the mining. Because the salt and tourists traveled up and down the same hoist, the salt couldn't move when there were visitors in it. In the late '60s, new mining safety regulations ended the tours.

People told Smith that the museum couldn't be built. He knew he'd need the blessing of the two companies already doing business in the mine.

In June 1999 he sat down with folks from the salt company and Underground Vaults. They too tried to talk him out of the idea "about a million different ways," he said.

But they promised: If you can get federal safety authorities to approve it, we'll help.

Thus began "one of the most unique partnerships you'll find in the United States, between a small historical society, an underground storage company and a working salt company," Smith said. "I mean, where do you see that?"

The project lurched forward in fits and starts. Fundraising screeched to a halt after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. Building a new, $6 million shaft and hoist - the one now used by the museum and Underground Vaults - had to wait until 2004, and only then could construction on the museum itself begin.

"Nobody had any idea how difficult it was going to be because it's just a completely alien kind of environment down there," said Linda Schmidt, the current director of the Reno County Historical Society.