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Central Standard

The Types Of Things Lurking Underground In Kansas City's Caves

You'd never find it by just looking around, but beneath the grounds of Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun is one of the largest systems of underground businesses in the country. 

Deep inside the Hunt Midwest SubTropolis, you can find everything from a massive stamp collection and the National Archives, to "cave aged" artisanal cheeses. There are even 5K and 10K races that take place entirely within the complex.

In fact, the Kansas City metro is home to a wealth of underground spaces converted from once abandoned limestone mines. In an interview with Central Standard's Gina Kaufmann on Wednesday, geosciences professor Syed Hasan of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said that the quality of local limestone, known as the Bethany Falls Limestone formation, is what attracted mining operations in the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

"Some of the layers of limestone are very pure, chemically speaking," Hasan said. "It's 95 percent calcium carbonate, which is the main stuff you're looking for to manufacture cement."

After mining companies extracted as much as they wanted, they simply packed up and left. Starting in the 1950s, Chiefs Owner Lamar Hunt took an interest in re-purposing the abandoned space for commercial use. Soon, other private owners bought mine space in Lee's Summit, Mo., and Lenexa, Kan., to convert into storage space.

One big draw for private companies and for the National Archives is the consistent temperature and humidity of limestone mines. They typically stay within 65 to 68 degrees, even when it is blisteringly hot or bitterly cold outside. There's also a wealth of raw square footage, which the companies that now own the underground spaces are expanding.

Though the utility of underground spaces is a big draw for companies, they're also great for storing curious objects just below our feet. Resident Central Standard historian Monroe Dodd says that the medical equipment used when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 now resides in Lenexa in closed storage. 

"The Smithsonian Institution didn't want it, the John F. Kennedy Library didn't want it, but the National Archives said, 'We'll take it,'" Dodd says. "The space was inexpensive, so it's all just there — the medical equipment and, apparently, the gurney on which [JFK] laid."

For Dodd, it's these kinds of oddities that keep these underground spaces alive in people's minds.

"To me it's an imaginative thing, but of course it's all real," Dodd said. "When you're walking around thinking, 'Gosh, under me isn't just dirt — there's life, storage, people at work, and some of the most amazing stuff down there.' It's very imaginative."

Central Standard history
Cody Newill is part of KCUR's audience development team. Follow him on Twitter @CodyNewill or email him at cody@kcur.org.