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How an Electric Shovel Made Coal Mining Easier in Kansas

Charlie Claywell grew up around heavy equipment, learning to drive on a front end loader. He still enjoys climbing around on old machines.

Big Brutus Is Huge

Big Brutus: By the Numbers

  • 16 stories tall (160 feet)
  • Weighs 11 million pounds
  • The boom is 150 feet long
  • Scoop 90 cubic yards or 150 tons
  • Maximum speed .22 MPH
  • Manufacturing cost: $6.5 million

The 16-story high machine stands proudly on the southeast Kansas landscape, a lasting monument to the people who supported their families by mining. Big Brutus, once capable of removing three railroad cars of earth in one scoop, sits quietly among other retired pieces of heavy equipment at a small non-profit organization near West Mineral, Kansas.

When I noticed the machine from a distance, I knew my daughter and I needed to see it up close. I was familiar with shovels and cranes since my father operated a dragline in Southwest Ohio for a couple of decades. But this piece of equipment seemed impossibly large as we climbed on it. The shovel’s bucket alone dwarfed us, making all the draglines I was familiar with seem like small Tonka toys.

Building Big Brutus

Dubbed Big Brutus by a Pittsburg and Midway Coal Mining Company Mine 19 superintendent in 1963, the machine was actually named Bucyrus Erie Company Coal Shovel Model 1850-B, and it cost a whopping $6.5 million to manufacture.

Designed to stay in service for 25 years, the purpose of the shovel was simple. It would be used to remove overburden – the layer of dirt and rock covering a coal seam – to get to the bituminous coal that was 20 to 69 feet below the surface. For 11 years, Big Brutus operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week with a crew of three exposing the coal.

Powering the 11-million pound shovel was two 3,500 horsepower electric motors – and similar to hybrid cars of today, energy efficiency was achieved through the use of regenerative braking. Recapturing energy occurred during the downward movement of the 135-ton capacity bucket – a bucket so large it was supported with four 3.5-inch steel cables.

It was a slow and methodical process: each year Big Brutus would work through one square mile of land.

The view from the controller's chair.

The view from the controller's chair.

Like Plowing a Field

"You just continually worked your way across the property you were stripping. It was very similar to plowing a field,” operator Dave Kimrey noted in an article for the Lawrence Journal World & News. As an operator, Kimrey sat in a control room on the right front corner of the machine where he controlled the movements of the scoop.

Besides the operator, a grounds man—who guided the shovel´s four sets of treads—and an oiler were on board for each shift Big Brutus was running.

Once overburden was removed in an area, Big Brutus inched along at .22 mph to a new location and smaller pieces of equipment were sent in to harvest the coal. Before the machine was decommissioned, it had exposed an estimated 9 million tons of coal.

Getting it to Kansas

When the shovel was completed in Bucyrus-Erie‘s Milwaukee factory, it was shipped to Kansas in 150 railcars. It took 52 people 11 months to assemble Big Brutus. It was hard and somewhat dangerous work because individual pieces of the machine could weigh as much as 120 tons. But at least when they were finished, they would be able to say they had assembled the world’s largest electric shovel.

But, oddly enough, that wasn’t the case.

Not the Largest

When the shovel began operation in Pittsburg & Midway Mine 19 in May 1963, it was the second largest operating coal shovel in the world. The largest, also built by Bucyrus-Erie Company, lived in western Kentucky. The Kentucky machine weighed 18 million pounds, was 220 feet tall, was powered with 12,000 horsepower and had a 115 cubic yard capacity scoop. The energy needs of the Kentucky model were equal to a city of 15,000 people.

Too Costly to Restore

By 1974, the cost of operation of the machine was escalating, and in its last month of operation, the electric bill was $27,000. But, once the plug was pulled a new issue arose: what to do with Big Brutus?

Since, the machine was too large to relocate intact it would need to be dismantled, transported to its new location and then reassembled. This was just too much work and expense. So, in 1983, the Pittsburg and Midway Coal Mining Company donated the machine, and $100,000 to paint it, to the non-profit where it now sits. The non-profit organization, Big Brutus, Incorporated, is comprised of local residents interested in the preservation of the machine and the region's coal mining history of mining.

A New Coat of Paint

Today, the organization hopes to give Big Brutus a fresh coat of paint, which, of course, is no small task. The outside alone will require 1,200 gallons of orange and black paint.

The Big Brutus Board of Directors has launched a fundraising campaign to cover the costs. Hopefully, they will be able to accomplish their goal. Because as their website states:

Big Brutus is not just a symbol of the past, but an eternal tribute to the mining heritage of Southeast Kansas and to miners all across this nation who toiled to support their families.

My daughter as a fifth grader standing in front of Big Brutus' massive bucket.

My daughter as a fifth grader standing in front of Big Brutus' massive bucket.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2013 Charlie Claywell