GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (February 18, 2014) — More than 160 years ago tunnels were dug under the city of Grand Rapids to mine gypsum…a plaster type material used for plaster of paris, plaster wall boards in houses, and more recently for drywall. The last of those mines were abandoned in the early 1940s, but by 1957 they would begin to serve a different purpose.
Michigan Natural Storage now houses documentation, records, food, beverages, and other items in a perfectly maintained environment of about 50 degrees (or more/less if needed). Concrete floors have been laid in some of the tunnels and lights have been erected. The mines are 85 feet below the surface and the entryway to the shaft(s) are located on the southwest side of Grand Rapids in a staging area of MNS. There are three elevators that allow forklift drivers to move freight quickly from the ground level to underground.
The entire idea of storing items underground began in the 1950s when Ron Kragt’s grandfather decided it was a perfect place to store local produce. It eventually blossomed into much more than that, but only 20 percent of the six miles of tunnels are actually developed with concrete floors and adequate lighting.
In more recent years the company added storage and freezer space above ground. In fact, they have about 300,000 square feet of space above ground versus the 100,000 square feet of storage underground. To see the tunnels and be that far underground is amazing. Some of the mine shafts have been abandoned and left exactly as they were when the mine went bankrupt in 1943. It’s interesting to see the black hole that leads nowhere in tot the abyss where there is no light in the middle or at the end of the tunnel.
It’s also interesting to note that in the 1960s the mines were a civil defense fallout shelter that could hold about 11,000 people. Old tools, drills, elevator shafts, and cables sit dormant after decades of gathering dust and being used in a once primitive industry where everything was done by hand.
In earlier days MNS would give tours in the mines to kids and students, but much of that has been stopped. That said, college students through geology departments and with instructors can sometimes visit the mines for educational purposes. You can find the Michigan Natural Storage website and contact information here.