Kansas City underground caves

Mining companies began hollowing out the caverns in the 1940s as they dug for limestone for highway construction. Rather than use the opencut quarry method, which scars the landscape, miners tunneled deep into bluffs along a limestone seam 22½ ft. thick, creating rooms with pillars. In all, 200 million sq. ft. of space has been scooped out over the years, and an additional 6 million sq. ft. is being opened up annually.

Shafts and fans were installed to draw in fresh air. In 1948 the U.S. Agriculture Department first began using the caverns for storing commodities. Currently it stashes almost 350 million lbs. of surplus food, largely dairy products, there.

Today the Kansas City complex consists of about a dozen underground areas. One of the largest is owned by Great Midwest Corp., a land-development company that is a subsidiary of Hunt Midwest Enterprises, which in turn is 90% owned by Texas Oilman Lamar Hunt.  (In 1985, Hunt Midwest enterprises, Inc. was formed through the merger of mid-America Enterprises, which operated the Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun themed amusement parks, and Great Midwest Corporation’s mining and real estate operations). From a distance, the rocky bluff along the Missouri River does not look any different from the surrounding area. Closer up, just below a mixed herd of grazing Angus and Hereford cattle, a hole in the bluff can be seen with big semitrailers going in and out. The address: 8300 N.E. Underground Drive. From another nearby hole rumbles a Burlington Northern freight train.

Other companies have found a wide variety of operations that can be done better underground. For H&R Block, the caves are a safe place to keep tons of tax forms. The U.S. Postal Service’s Philatelic Order Fulfillment Branch, with 48 employees, processes 1,200 requests daily from its hole in the ground. It likes the security advantages and the fact that in the low-humidity atmosphere the $100 million worth of stamps it keeps there do not stick together.

The biggest client is Inland Storage Distribution Center, a subsidiary of Beatrice Foods. The company’s underground storage space amounts to a staggering 23 million cu. ft., enough to keep the food to supply a meal to every man, woman and child in America.

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