The Wieliczka Salt Mine's origin is associated with an old Polish legend. Hungarian Princess Kinga was to marry the Prince of Hungary. As a dowry, the Princess asked her father, King Bela, for a lump of salt because there were no salt mines in Poland at the time and she knew her soon to be husband would appreciate the gesture. When Princess Kinga arrived at the salt mine in Maramaros, she tossed her engagement ring in a shaft, asking for a salt mine in Poland. Upon returning to Krakow, she told the miners to dig a pit until they found a rock. The rock the miners found was a lump of salt, and when they split it in two, the Princess's ring was inside. This event solidified her as the patron saint of salt miners and established the Wieliczka Salt Mine.
For over 700 years, the Wieliczka Salt Mine has been a staple of Polish legends and a symbol of the Polish people's hospitality, dedication, and work ethic. Prior to the establishment of Salt Mining in the area, salt brine collecting at the surface was boiled in clay pots and the salt that remained was traded and even used as currency. Deep wells were dug to obtain more brine and sometime around the 1280’s, the first rock salt was found in Wieliczka.
Salt mining became established in the 13th century via royal decree. With help from King Casimir III throughout the 14th-century, the mine's production equaled a third of the royal treasury's income. In 1368, the Saltworks Statute passed, setting rules for the salt mining industry and guaranteeing the continued growth of the mine.
From 1333 until 1370, King Casimir III the Great was the ruler of Poland. During his 37-year reign, he brought wealth and prosperity to Poland, where he was humorously called “the Peasants’ King.” He was known as a peaceful leader and practical diplomat, his policies were unbiased and often attempted to lessen the superiority of the ruling class. In one example, King Casimir III, facing the possibility of death, prohibited Jews from being kidnapped for enforced Christian Baptism.
The statue of King Casimir III was sculpted by salt miners at the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow, Poland. The King founded a hospital near the salt mine in 1363 as production of the mine was vital to Poland’s national wealth. Its impact influenced life throughout the country as King Casimir used these added resources to reform the polish military, order the construction of over 40 castles, establish the University of Krakow, expand land holdings, and reform the judicial system.
Before the 15th century, technical limitations meant that mine shafts could not be very deep. Between the 15th and 17th centuries, the introduction of horses and new machines helped the mine become the most significant production plant in the region. Following World War Two, the mine would expand again to nine levels covering 190 miles of tunnels going to a depth over 1000 feet.
Concentrated pockets of gas are often a problem in mines. Miners were dressed in a dampened coat and utilized a long stick with a burning torch at the end to combat this gas problem. They would crawl along the floor with the torch raised until the fire and pocket of gases met. In theory, the flame would pass over the miner, and the miner would be able to retreat safely. It was not until the early 19th century that the invention of safety lamps would significantly reduce the number of mining-related injuries and deaths.