From The Neolithic To The Present Day. The history of the Wieliczka Salt Mine

The history of the Wieliczka Salt Mine

For centuries, salt was considered a treasure; it was even called “white gold”. The discovery of rock salt and its subsequent exploitation led to the development of the surrounding towns and regions. Residents living close to mines gained wealth; it also made the area a major point on the trade route, and this created new opportunities. Salt was particularly profitable since it was one of the few methods of preserving food – and the most effective. The mineral was so valuable that it was still used as a currency in the 14th century. It is notable that Poland used salt in this way for much longer than most European countries. The oldest traces of attempts to mine salt were discovered in the Alps and date back to the 5th millennium BC. But back then (and for centuries later), the most popular method of extracting salt was to evaporate water from brine springs. This sequence continued until natural exhaustion of drains – that was when people started digging deeper.

The Beginnings Of Mining In Wieliczka

It was no different in Wieliczka. Initially, brine springs were also exploited. The research indicates that the first attempts to exploit the brine in today’s Wieliczka date back to 3000 years BC. Owing to the discoveries of the Krakow Saltworks Museum staff, prehistoric brine evaporation installations were investigated and secured. However, it was not an isolated way to obtain salt. The method, which was considered the oldest, consisted in boiling water until it evaporated completely; this way only pure salt remained at the bottom of the earthen pot. The oldest salt vessels in Central Europe were found in Barycz Village near Wieliczka. When the springs stopped rising to the surface, people began to drill deep wells. Soon, a discovery of shallow salt deposits was made.

The installation shows salt mining in the Neolithic times

Middle Ages

The wells quickly began to be transformed into mines; vertical communication lines were built with horizontally running tunnels. As the Middle Ages ended, there were about 350 people working in the mine; annual production was about 7-8 thousand tons of salt. And all this despite the fact that the work was merely seasonal – the local miners’ year was divided between the mine and agricultural work, such as harvesting or haying.

Already then, the Wieliczka Salt Mine was so famous that it was visited by the first tourists. The first famous artist to visit the mine was Nicolaus Copernicus – an outstanding Polish astronomer who discovered that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Copernicus walked along the shafts of Wieliczka in 1493.

This is what a medieval horse treadmill looked like

Modern Times

In the 16th century, the operating mode was changed to year-round. More and more specialists were employed, and the first underground map in Poland was created. The oldest preserved maps originate from the 1830s.  The mine was so important that the then king Henry IV the Right ordered to build a bathhouse for the miners working there, which was even inhabited by a hairdresser (who first and foremost provided first aid). Concurrently, the miners’ fate was so dangerous that, apart from ambulances for the victims of accidents, it was also necessary to build shelters for their widows and orphans. A hundred years later, a large hospital was built. This is associated with an unusual curiosity – in 1697 a woman Magdalena Bendzisławska was employed as a barber surgeon. Bendzisławska was also the first woman in Poland to receive a surgeon’s diploma. Such a well-developed social assistance system was unique in the world.

The mine was becoming increasingly popular among travelers, both from Poland and abroad. And although a visit required the king’s personal approval, the number of volunteers grew steadily. Many travelers and scientists’ memories of expeditions have actually been preserved to this day.

The end of the 13th century saw the establishment of an enterprise called “Kraków Żupy” (“żupa” stands for salt mine), which comprised the salt mines in Wieliczka and nearby Bochnia.
The company operated for nearly 500 years, until the first partition of Poland in 1772.
In the 14th century, the saltworks income accounted for over 30% of the total government revenue. This money was used to pay for the royal court and the maintenance of castles which guarded trade routes. The income derived from Wieliczka salt was also used by the then King Casimir the Great to establish the Academy of Krakow (later the Jagiellonian University), one of the oldest universities in Europe. In the 16th century, the Wieliczka Salt Mine was one of the most powerful and dynamically operating European enterprises.

Underground chapel of St. Kinga in Wieliczka

Times of the Partitions

After the first partition of Poland in 1772, the ages of the royal economy came to an end. However, this did not have negative implications for the mine. There were many changes in the organization of work and documentation of the mine, and newly hired specialists introduced innovative methods of extraction. Austrian management spared no expense on development; one of the first projects was an underground railway line. The Wieliczka salt mine became one of the most important production plants in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Owing to the technical development of the 19th century, a steam hoisting machine and a salt mill were put into operation. Hand drills were replaced with pneumatic ones. In 1868, the first tourist trail was marked out; it could be visited while riding in a horse cart. Tourism became a huge source of income. Demonstrations were held aimed at a wider audience, such as fireworks or the so-called “devil’s ride”, which consisted in descending on mining ropes. A large group of tourists were Poles from other partitions, for whom the salt mine was a reminder of their officially non-existent homeland. 

One of the underground lakes in Wieliczka

Wieliczka of the 20th Century

Over the years, the general technical condition of the mine also improved. In 1912, a mechanized brewhouse was opened on the surface. The interwar period was a time not only of further technical advance, but also of tourism and salt treatment.

The salt mine also saw numerous celebrations and events. During World War II, the mine was still in operation; fortunately, the facility proved to be of use to the Nazis. As a result, it survived the war undamaged, and production increased significantly. Hard times came shortly after – at the turn of the 40s and 50s, the country was poor and devastated by war. Much more had to be mined in order to obtain the highest possible income. Unfortunately, when work began in the central parts of the mine, that is near the historic workings, the situation deteriorated. Increased exploitation in this area caused an imbalance of the rock mass. It also accelerated the destruction of the tourist trail. Due to the deteriorating conditions, the first works to secure the mines began at the end of the 1950s. In 1964, the mining of rock salt in Wieliczka was completely given up. Salt was brewed by means of the wet method.

Brine graduation tower

In 1976, the building was entered on the list of Polish monuments. It was also extremely important to recognize the salt mine as a unique UNESCO monument; it was one of the first items on the World Heritage List, entered as early as 1978.

In 1992 there was a water leak in the Mina corridor. This was by far not the first time; years 1868 and 1879 saw such serious leaks that there was fear of complete flooding of the mine. It was not until 1996 that a decision was made to completely end the industrial production of salt. Today, the “Wieliczka” Salt Mine is one of the most popular locations in Małopolska among Polish and foreign tourists. It is visited by over 1,000,000 people annually.