A Shovel on Steroids

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – Week 28: Transportation

PROMPT: As the daughter of a service station owner, I grew up around cars and developed an appreciation for them. Whether it’s planes, trains, or automobiles (or canal boats, or steamships, or… ), think about transportation and how it affected an ancestor. Did canals open up markets for crops? Did railways offer job opportunities? Explore the transportation theme this week!
The author, dwarfed by Big Brutus

Okay, I will admit it right up front: what I’m about to describe is not a mode of transportation in the traditional sense of a vehicle purposed for transporting people. Then again, trains—a suggested topic in the prompt above—may be used for transporting people or goods, so perhaps my disclaimer is unnecessary.

Since recently visiting the large mechanical wonder described here, I have frankly been looking for any excuse to write about and share photos of it…or should I say “him?”

I am referring to Big Brutus. He is now retired and enjoying the good life in southeastern Kansas. But, boy howdy, back in the day? This guy moved mountains! Literally.

And, believe it or not, yes: this is related to my ancestors. Stay with me, here.

…This guy moved mountains! Literally.

Ancestors on both my father’s maternal and paternal sides worked as miners. In my dad’s father’s family, Ernest Arthur Laney (1889-1958)—my father’s paternal grandfather—worked in the mines in southeastern Kansas, northeastern Oklahoma, and southwestern Missouri—the “tri-state area.” He was also very involved in the various labor unions representing the miners at that time. I wrote about his work in the mines and with organized labor in a previous post.

On my father’s mother’s side of the family, David Williamson (1888-1974)—my father’s great-grandfather—worked in the mines near Hamilton in Lanarkshire, Scotland. He and his family emigrated to Kansas in 1888. Dave Williamson also found work as a miner in the tri-state area as did his son John Williamson (1876-1959.) David’s older brother William Williamson (1839-1893), who had emigrated with his brother’s family and also found work in the area mines, died as a result of a fatal mining accident.

The Pittsburg Daily Headlight – 01 Sep 1893

Over the years, these ancestors mined coal, lead, and zinc for various mining companies in different small mining towns that cropped up around the profitable local industry.

I recently visited this area to get a closer look at the sites where these ancestors once lived and worked.

Through various regional guidebooks and websites, I learned about Big Brutus and his out-sized contributions to the strip mining industry in this area. Before I even made my trip west, I knew that this 160-foot 5,500-ton monstrosity was a must-see.

When I arrived in Oklahoma and told my parents about the itinerary for my upcoming visit to Kansas, including a visit to South Mineral to see Big Brutus, it was clear from the expression on my father’s face that this rang a bell. “My Dad and Granddad took me to see that when I was a little kid. I remember being scared half to death!!” Now my interest was really picqued!

When I asked my father if he could elaborate on his childhood experience, he confessed that it was long ago and that his memories of it are vague. He remembers being about five or six years old when his father and grandfather took him to see this humongous electric shovel in action. He remembers standing on some elevated observation point, looking down on the electric shovel. It was nighttime, and with the harsh work lights in use at the site, the pivoting motion of the cab and crane and the vertical motion of the bucket created creepy shadows. Between the height of the observation point and the darkness and erratic shadows— and no doubt deafening sounds—he did not share his companions’ enthusiasm for the rig.

I have no doubt that what my father saw was extremely intimidating, especially for a young child. But if he was five or six years old at the time, that would put the time frame in the mid-1940s. Construction on Brutus did not begin until 1963. Therefore, I have concluded that my Dad must not have seen Brutus but one of its predecessors. A quick Google image search brought up numerous photographic images and vintage postcards of assorted varieties of large electric shovels—equally intimidating—that were in use in strip-mining pits in Pittsburg from the 1920s on.

A photograph showing miners posed by a large steam shovel in an open pit mine owned by J. J. Stephenson Coal Company, Pittsburg, Kansas. Horse drawn coal cars and tracks are also visible.
Photo taken between 1920 and 1929. Kansas Historical Society collection.

Big Brutus is, in the simplest terms, an oversized front-loader. It is an electrical shovel, model 1850-B, built by Bucyrus-Erie for the Pittsburg & Midway Coal Mining Company. It was not designed to nor did it dig deep for coal. Its function was primarily one of transport. It moved the by-product of the coal to railway cars to be hauled away. Specifically, its design made it possible to recover relatively thin seams of bituminous coal at depths varying from 20 to 69 feet.

Big Brutus worked tirelessly–powered by two 3,500-horsepower electric motors–24 hours per day, 7 days a week. During its years of operation, it stripped about a square mile of earth per year. The bucket scooped out 90 cubic yards or 135 tons of earth with each bite.

Thanks to an old 8mm movie clip uploaded to YouTube by a descendant of the videographer, we can see actual footage of Big Brutus in action.

When it proved too costly to run this behemoth, it was retired in April of 1974. Ten years later, P & M deeded the big dude to be used as the centerpiece of a planned museum dedicated to the local coal-mining industry. Big Brutus was later given the designation of Regional Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by The American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

My husband and I had to take photos, of course, but we did not choose to climb up inside of Brutus. The video tour below was more than adequate for me, and watching it after I had returned home afforded me an even better appreciation of the shovel’s scale.

Today, Brutus is silent as are the mines and many of the towns in the area. Visiting my father’s birthplace–Picher, Oklahoma–was particularly sobering. Formerly a major center of lead and zinc production in the nation, it is now a ghost town.

Unrestricted subsurface excavation undermined the town’s buildings. Further, the giant piles of mine tailing–“chat”–that my Dad used to unwittingly play on as a child were later determined to be contaminated with toxic metal.

The building cave-ins, groundwater contamination, and associated health effects associated with the chat piles and subsurface shafts ultimately resulted in the the EPA designating Picher and surrounding communities as a Superfund Site. The federal agency and the state of Oklahoma agreed to a mandatory evacuation and buyout of the entire township. The population of the city in the year 2000 was 1,640; in 2010, twenty residents remained. And the following year, those who remained—steadfastly refusing to evacuate their homes for any price—numbered only six.

Efforts have been made to reclaim some of this area from the desecration of the environment wrought by the strip-mining industry. Seeing the poverty in this rural area, it is not difficult to get a sense of the high price paid by both local residents and the environment for the harvesting of what had once been an abundant and lucrative natural resource.

We are living in different times now, of course. We now know so much more about conservation, and more attention is being paid to environmental concerns. There are far more individual advocates and charitable foundations dedicated to environmental protections as well.

As imposing and impressive as Big Brutus is—and as glad as I was to have seen it up close—I must confess that I am left trying to reconcile the majesty and stature of this spectacular piece of modern machinery with it having been purposed as an implement for ravaging the earth, leaving obscene amounts of detritus in its wake. Perhaps if others leave this site with similar misgivings, preservation of Big Brutus may even serve as a historical reminder of how far we have come in being caretakers of the earth. And how much farther we still have to go.

2 thoughts on “A Shovel on Steroids”

    1. Thank you for reading, Barb. Yes, it’s hard to believe humans built such a contraption and that it required only three people to operate it!

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