A fascinating journey through the underground world of Merkers Show Mine
From the road leading into the small town of Merkers in the Werra Valley in Thuringia, one sees two distinctive winding towers in the distance, a reminder of the time when the potash mine was still active, which ended when the Merkers plant was closed in 1993. Merkers Show Mine (MSM) was opened for visitors two years before that, its purpose being to increase the local population’s confidence in the mine, which the GDR had always treated as a state secret. Considerably more than 1 million people have visited this unique attraction since it was opened. To enter the mine, visitors are lowered 500 metres below ground in the shaft elevator, which takes only 90 seconds. Experienced miners then take them on a guided tour of the world of the “white gold”, giving them a vivid insight into the eventful history of potash mining in the region and the working life of the miners.
Twice a day from Tuesday to Sunday visitors are taken on a thrilling 25-kilometre long journey through the mine, which covers an area of approximately 140 square kilometres. Before entering the mine, they are provided with a coat, a helmet and a mining lamp. The mine environment is actually quite comfortable – the air underground is warm (20-28°C) with only 30 per cent humidity.
Riding the shaft elevator 500 metres below ground
The first memorable experience for visitors is travelling down the mine shaft in the shaft elevator (the “descent”), an ideal introduction to the tour through the depths of the mine. There is enough room on the three levels of the elevator to accommodate 72 people. The elevator travels down the shaft at a speed of eight metres per second, arriving at its destination, at a depth of 500 metres, after only 90 seconds.
For the next leg of the tour, the visitors board an open-top truck. Interestingly, all visitors, both young and old, feel that the truck is moving at great speed, as the dark and in some places narrow passages leading to the individual viewing points produce the well-known tunnel effect. In fact, there is a maximum speed limit of 35 km/h.
In the underground mining museum, visitors have the opportunity to view hands-on exhibits which illustrate the development of mining equipment, from the first hand drills to a modern load transport vehicle. For example, we learn that 100 years ago, in the first years of the potash mine’s operation, the excavated potash salt was shovelled by hand into trolleys, a process which is now handled by modern, fully automated machines. The hands-on exhibits in this area are especially popular with children. For example, they can sit in the driving seat of a huge mining machine and find out what it feels like to be a real miner.
Underground concerts and events
Another stop on the underground tour is the bunker, which was once used as a holding facility for crude salt. With a length of 250 metres, a width of 22 metres and a height of approximately 17 metres, it is as big as the nave of a Gothic church. Due to its excellent acoustics, it is also a suitable venue for concerts. In fact, it is the largest underground concert hall in the world. Its extraordinary ambience also makes it suitable for art exhibitions, conferences and public relations events.
History at first hand
With the onset of allied bombing raids in the Second World War, salt mines were frequently used to store art treasures, valuable archive materials and money and gold, as the deep excavated working chambers were considered to be completely bomb-proof. In the “gold room”, the Merkers Show Mine held (until early 1945) approximately 220 tonnes of gold bullion and banknotes and coins worth millions, i.e. the gold and currency reserves of the German National Bank in Berlin. The hoard was discovered and secured by US troops. The commander-in-chief of the allied forces in Europe, Dwight D. Eisenhower, personally visited the mine with his generals to examine the unique find.
This historical event is the theme of the Gold Room, another stop on the tour. It is presented in such a way as to give visitors a clear understanding of both the event itself and the historical context.
The climax of the journey through the mine and the tour of the underground world of MSM is the crystal grotto, which is located at a depth of 800 metres. The approximately 60-metre long cavity with its sparkling salt crystals was first discovered in 1981. Due to special geological conditions (something of a “freak of nature”), gigantic rock salt crystals are formed here with edge lengths of up to one metre, which cause the walls and ceiling of the cavity to sparkle and shine. This effect is reinforced by a remarkable light and music installation.
Information on K+S
The crystal grotto is the last stop on the unforgettable tour of the world of the “white gold”. Visitors are then brought back to the surface in the elevator, where they can visit the information and visitors centre (built in 2003). Here they can find out more about the K+S Group, buy a souvenir or have something to eat in the Kristall restaurant.
In 2006, Merkers Show Mine was included in the European Route of Industrial Heritage (ERIH). The route consists of more than 70 locations, so-called anchor points, in various European countries. Its aim is to bring the history of European industry to life, as well as to develop selected sites with special industrial significance on the basis of tourism concepts. Merkers is in good company here – the ERIH also includes the Mines of Rammelsberg in Goslar, the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex and the Völklinger Steelworks.
Underground sporting challenges
Since it was opened 19 years ago, Merkers Show Mine has developed into an established tourist destination in the region between Eisenach in Thuringia and Bad Hersfeld in Hesse. In recent years, the range of events offered by the mine has been successively extended. Besides a diverse concert programme including musical events to suit every taste, sporting events such as mountain bike tours have for some time now also been very popular. Whether on foot in the Crystal Marathon or on a mountain bike, Merkers Show Mine offers both beginners and experienced athletes a special kind of challenge.
For those with a head for heights who wish to develop their climbing skills, a further attraction has recently been introduced – “Down Under”, a challenging climbing course that reaches high above the floor of the mine in the area of the underground bunker. Anyone who feels up to it is welcome to try their luck.
Tying the knot 800 metres below the ground
Since 2009, MSM has also offered a special attraction for people who are planning to get married – wedding ceremonies held at set times in the unique atmosphere of the crystal grotto. The grotto, which is located 800 metres below ground, is temporarily converted into a registry office. After the ceremony the newly-weds and their guests can enjoy an attractive accompanying programme in this evocative setting.
If you would like to organise a special birthday treat for your child, you can also find what you are looking for in MSM. A few years ago we began providing fun days out for children celebrating their birthday and their guests. One of the high points is a blast simulation, where the children get to detonate a simulated blast just like real miners, which includes light and sound effects. Afterwards they are awarded the title “Junior Explosives Expert”.
Merkers Show Mine offers fun and entertainment for people of all ages and is always worth a visit. We hope to see you soon!
From 1 April to 30 November, Merkers Show Mine (MSM) provides guided tours from Tuesday to Sunday at 9.30 am and at 1.30 pm, Sundays only 10.30 am, between 1 December and 31 March, guided tours are available from Tuesday to Saturday at 9.30 am and at 1.30 pm, while on Sundays the Merkers Show Mine is closed. We recommend that you arrange a time for a mine ride in advance by telephone (+ 49 (0) 3695 61 4101). Further information on tours, admission prices and special events (concerts and mountain bike tours) is available on our website at www.erlebnisbergwerk.de