Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Once Upon a Time ...


Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Randy who liked to dig in the dirt in his parents' farmstead yard. 

As little boys are prone to do, the little boy eventually got bigger. So he became a farmer. The equipment he used got bigger. He traded the backyard for farm fields. But he still liked digging in the dirt.

Corn coming up, 2018

And, then, after 50-plus years of farming, he retired.  

So, for his second road trip after retirement, he visited a big old dirt digger called Big Brutus. He said he'd always wanted to. And so he did. 

We got back last week from a trip that took us from home to southeast Kansas - where we saw Big Brutus - through Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana and back home again. We covered  2,150 miles. 

Our first stop was Big Brutus, located in West Mineral, Kansas. It's out in the middle of nowhere, but as we got closer to the site, we could see the massive machine piercing the horizon from miles away, looking kind of like a giant grasshopper. We brought a picnic lunch, since there's no restaurant nearby.

Today, Big Brutus is on the Kansas and National Register of Historic Places. But back in the 1960s, it was a centerpiece of coal mining in southeast Kansas. Coal mining began in the 1850s, and during its heyday, more than 300 million tons of coal was processed.In the late 1800s and early 1900s, millions of immigrants came to America in search of a better life. During that time, underground mining of coal was one of the largest industries in the state, and immigrant laborers were a large part of the work force. The immigrants often needed a place to live, and the coal companies provided houses similar to this house as part of the miners' pay. A typical house was 150-square-feet and was built on skids so it could be moved as needed.

This house was used in a mining camp close to Mineral or West Mineral and was donated to the Big Brutus complex.

Big Brutus was one of the later tools used for mining. It was purchased in 1962 from the Bucyrus-Erie Company of South Milwaukee, Wisconsin, at a  cost of $6.5 million. To ship the shovel to Cherokee County, Kansas, 150 railroad cars were needed. From June 1962 to May 1963, a 52-member crew worked to assemble the shovel. The 1850-B is the only one of its kind ever built and was recognized as an engineering accomplishment at the time.

Newspapers of the time called it a "coal monster." And it was. The enormous power shovel towered more than 15 stories high and weighed 11 million pounds. 

The shovel in the foreground is dwarfed by the enormity of Big Brutus.

When Big Brutus began scooping dirt in June 1963, its 90-cubic yard shovel removed the overburden (dirt and rocks covering the coal seams) and with one scoop could fill three railroad cars. 

The coal shovel ran 24 hours per day, 7 days per week and was operated by a three-man crew.The operator sat in the cabin and ran the controls. An oiler made sure all the moving parts were lubricated. The groundsman worked with the operator to move Big Brutus forward and backward.

After Big Brutus took away the overburden, coal strippers moved in on the coal seams. That coal powered seven electric companies.

This helps give a little perspective. The treads stand taller than Randy, who's a little taller than 6 foot.

However, the minerals had been depleted by the 1970s, and the mines closed in the 1980s. Big Brutus gobbled up its last bucket of coal just a decade after arriving in Kansas. In 1973, the owners said it was too big to move and too expensive to dismantle. So they stripped it of its of its electrical and auxiliary equipment, leaving it to rust, a dinosaur of the technological age.

Eventually, a non-profit corporation dedicated to the mining heritage of southeast Kansas decided to make Big Brutus the centerpiece of a museum. The P & M Coal Company donated the shovel, 16 surrounding acres, and $100,000 to the project. Volunteers restored Big Brutus, and it now operates as a museum featuring the largest existing electric shovel in the world.

A couple of trucks are also exhibited on the museum grounds. Randy is in this photo, though the lighting makes him hard to see.

We were curious how the big machines on Discovery Channel's Gold Rush would look, compared to Big Brutus. In a Google search, an article says that a 750 excavator bought by gold miner Parker Schnabel in 2021 can hold up to 8.5 tons of dirt. Big Brutus' dipper handled 90 cubic yards - or 150 tons - of overburden in one scoop. 

After we left Big Brutus, we traveled on Route 66 for a little bit. Of course, that rated another photo by a mural in Avilla, Kansas. Route 66 through Kansas is the shortest of all the states, only about 13 miles.

Route 66 may not have covered many miles ... but we sure did. More from the trip next time.


  1. Love those road trips!!

  2. Very interesting.

    1. Thanks! Stop by again for more stops on our road trip.

  3. What a mammoth piece of machinery! I will have to send this post to my engineering son.

    1. I'm guessing he will be interested!