The value of the monument
The Wieliczka salt mine was declared a historical monument in 1994. It is a unique mining facility, one of the largest and oldest industrial plants in Europe, operating continuously from the Middle Ages to the end of the 20th century. Together with the nearby mine in Bochnia, she created the Krakow Salt Works (Krakow Auschwitz Salt Mine tour) – a historic enterprise of great importance for the economy of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, whose operating principles were determined by the 14th-century ordination of King Casimir the Great. Maintained for centuries at the highest technical level, it is today an invaluable document for the evolution of mining techniques from before the steam engine era, as well as the development and organization of the salt industry in Poland. The scientific value of perfectly preserved excavations, mining structures, equipment and tools is complemented by historical sources in the form of existing iconographic and cartographic documentation from various eras.
The uniqueness of the Wieliczka mine also includes the natural beauty of its spacious chambers, often flooded with salt lakes, as well as the original nature of art and craft objects made in salt by the miners themselves to decorate the underground chapels. Admired for centuries by its visitors, including numerous personalities from the world of politics, science and culture, Wieliczka belongs to the most important places of both Polish and world cultural heritage.
The beginnings of salt brewing in Wieliczka date back to the middle Neolithic period (around 3500 BC). The discovery of rock salt took place in the second half of the 13th century. The commencement of its large-scale exploitation dates back to the 1880s, when the first shaft called Goryszowski began operating. The city was founded in 1290, invested by prince Przemysł II under Franconian law. In the same period a royal enterprise jointly formed with the Bochnia soup – so-called Cracow soups. Wieliczka flourished during the reign of Casimir the Great. The Statute of Statute, issued by him in 1368, regulated for the first time the principles of mining and selling salt, which at that time constituted one-third of the state’s income. In the same century, the city walls were erected, the Saltworks Castle existing since the end of the 13th century was expanded – the headquarters of the mines in Wieliczka and Bochnia, and craft workshops. Wieliczka has become the capital of the Old Polish industry with a known and valued brand (the mine trademark is the first one used in Poland).
The period of splendor of Krakow’s salt mines lasted until the mid-seventeenth century. Salt was mined in Wieliczka from three levels, using eight shafts. The first maps of the mine were also created then. The wars of the second half of the 17th century shook the salt economy for some time; only in the eighteenth century specialists came from Saxony improved the technical and organizational activities of the company.
During the partitions, when Wieliczka was under Austrian rule, there was a spatial development of the mine, an increase in salt extraction, the introduction of machinery and the employment of professional engineering staff, as well as (in 1913) the launch of a modern salt works. As early as in the 1870s, the Austrians made part of old excavations available for tourist purposes. Thanks to the books they have introduced, it is known that the guests included: emperors Franciszek I and Franciszek Józef, Tsar Alexander I, Dmitry Mendelejew, Fryderyk Chopin, Jan Matejko, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Ignacy Paderewski and many others. At that time, Poles visited the mine massively driven by patriotic motives, treating it as a symbol of the former greatness of the Polish state.
The supranational cultural and natural values of Wieliczka were recognized in 1978 by an entry on the UNESCO World Heritage List – as one of the first twelve objects in the world. Salt exploitation ceased completely in 1996. Today, the underground of the mine serves tourist, museum and therapeutic purposes. A nature reserve has been created within the natural underground voids – the Upper and Lower Crystal Caves.
The mine lies under the city on nine levels (at a depth of 57 to 327 m). The original excavations stretch on an area about 5.5 km long and 1.5 km wide. They have 2040 chambers and approx. 300 km of pavements, with a total volume of post-mining voids of approx. 7.5 million m³. The oldest excavations start above the first level floor. Chambers created in the period from the sixteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century are located on levels I-III. In fourteen chambers on the third level there is a permanent exhibition of the Krakow Saltworks Museum, whose ground office is the Saltworks Castle.
The complex of powerful underground architecture can be visited thanks to the marked tourist route, the beginning of which is located in the building constituting the contemporary entrance to the mine – the Daniłowicz shaft, explored in 1635-1640. It leads through pavements (called longitudinal and transverse depending on the direction in which they were forged) and salt chambers. The latter were protected against collapse in several ways: wooden castles (e.g. Mikołaj Kopernik’s chamber), wooden expansion casing (e.g. Michałowice chamber), protective salt pillars left in excavations (e.g. Erazm Barącz’s chamber). The highest open to public excavation connecting the two levels is a chamber named after Stanisław Staszic, who visited the mine at the end of the 18th century. In turn, Józef Piłsudski’s chamber was created from two chambers hewn in the first half of the 19th century, then adapted for tourist purposes. A tunnel was pierced between them, brine was flooded and a ferry for visitors was launched. In order to protect the ceilings, a casing called basket was made here. Among the older excavations, the Pieskowa Skała chamber from the 17th century is interesting, connecting two adjacent levels. There are traces of crumbling works visible in it, and sections of old stairs wrought in salt have been preserved, which were used to transfer the spoil.
Authentic mining equipment and tools are exhibited in the mine rooms. For example, exhibits in the Sielec chamber were once used to transport salt through internal corridors, while the original wooden gutter with a ladle was used in the Kunegund transverse, formerly used to drain spills. In Wieliczka, there is also a valuable set of wooden lift treadmills for vertical transport. One of them, of the Saxon type, can be seen in the eighteenth-century chamber of Casimir the Great.
Interiors of a special nature, constituting an invaluable legacy of the spiritual culture of miners, are salt chapels. In terms of grandeur and unique sculptural decor, the interior of the chapel of St. Kinga, patron of miners. The furnishings, created since the 19th century, are entirely made of salt, including floors or chandeliers with unusual craftsmanship. The oldest preserved chapel in the basement is the seventeenth-century chapel of St. Antoni about baroque architectural and sculptural forms.
The so-called Crystal Caves are protected due to their natural values - the unique accumulation of halite crystals and the form of salt karst.