Awesome Earthmovers took a trip to Kansas, U.S.A to see the World’s largest existing stripping shovel in May 2018. The 5000 tonne monster machine has it’s own dedicated museum and is surrounded by some of it’s smaller siblings from the days when coal mining ruled in South East Kansas.
While driving on approach over the flat Kansas plains to the mining museum that contains Big Brutus, the giant 160 foot high boom dominates the horizon from over 5 miles away. It’s not an easy place to visit unless you’re part of the sparse population that inhabits south-east Kansas. For myself it involved a transatlantic flight to New York then another flight to Kansas City International Airport followed by a 150 mile drive south to West Mineral, Kansas.
The history and heritage of south-east Kansas is dominated by the mining industry. The areas natural resources which include coal, zinc and lead began to be exploited in the 1870’s. At one stage south-east Kansas was the largest zinc producer in the World and mined a third of the coal in the United States. All this is now gone leaving a legacy of reclaimed land and communities in decline. The old strip pits that Brutus gouged out 50 feet deep and 120 feet wide between 1963 and 1974 are now tranquil fishing spots that nature is slowly reclaiming.
The Big Brutus museum is set on a 16 acre plot of land donated by The Pittsburg & Midway Coal Mining Company. Although Big Brutus is the star attraction, a large one storey wooden building houses model replicas of mining equipment and historical photos of the areas mining history. Seventy-six year old Betty Becker is the manager of the museum and has been from it opened in July 1985. She is a wealth of knowledge on Brutus and is happy to share it with any visitors. Her father ran a coal truck in the mine, sadly passing away on the job in 1966.
After paying my entrance fee I was eager to head out the back door of the museum to the outside area which contains Big Brutus as well as other historical mining equipment from past 100 years. Brutus himself has been designated a “Regional historic mechanical engineering landmark” by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The shovel began operations in May of 1963 and after taking it’s last bite of the Kansas dirt in April 1974 Brutus lay idle until the mid 80’s, becoming covered in bird droppings and rust. After a $100,000 restoration project in 1984 this Bucyrus-Erie 1850B was given a new lease of life as a tourist attraction.
If Big Brutus were anywhere near a major city or population centre it would be thronged with visitors, instead I find myself alone for two hours, the silence only punctuated by the wind and birdsong. Standing beside one of the four double sets of crawlers, I can barely reach the top of one. Each of the 8 crawlers is 34 feet long and 5 feet wide. Apparently not one of the pads on these crawlers is an original, having all been replaced over the years after sustaining damage due to the sheer weight they had to bear. It’s incredible when you consider these pads are no lightweights at 997 kg each! The machine had to be brought out of the last strip pit it worked on to a bench of solid rock in April 1974. The gigantic 90 cubic yard bucket took 150 ton chunks out of the surrounding Kansas countryside for 11 years, 24 hours a day and it’s been estimated that in it’s lifetime the shovel would have dug out a 40 to 50 foot deep, 120 foot wide and 368 mile long trench. Apparently a Caterpillar D9 could be reversed into the bucket!
Big Brutus is what’s classed as a stripping shovel. It’s purpose was to remove the overburden after which smaller shovels would come in it’s wake to load trucks with the coal. Costing 6.5 million dollars in 1962, this one-of-a-kind Bucyrus-Erie model 1850B took 52 men 11 months to assemble. Brutus would dig strip pits around 120 feet wide and 20 to 69 feet deep to reach the coal seams, which could be between 20 and 75 feet thick. The actual layers of coal were only 10 to 32 inches in thickness separated by thin layers of other geology. After reaching the end of a pit the shovel would then turn around and dig a parallel pit, casting the new material into the previously excavated pit. The shovels cycle time in digging, dumping and returning to dig again was timed at 55 seconds. “You just continually worked your way across the property you were stripping. It was very similar to ploughing a field,” operator Dave Kimrey noted in an article for Lawrence Journal World & News. This process is known as strip mining and took in 10,000 acres of Crawford and Cherokee counties. The coal mined over 150 years in south-east Kansas is estimated to amount to 300 million tons. Any that wasn’t used locally was shipped out via the Missouri, Kansas and Texas railroad, affectionately know as “ The Katy”.
The interior and cab of Brutus are accessible to the public although the boom is not anymore due to safety and insurance issues. Over the years some couples have been married up on the inspection walkways. In 2010 an illegal base jump unfortunately ended in tragedy. The original access to the cab and workings of Big Brutus was an elevator inside the 45 foot diameter roller circle but with electrical power now lacking to run it, it’s now necessary to use steps and walkways. On first entering the cavernous bowels of Brutus one can observe the absence of the massive electric motors that used to power the machine. They were the only parts removed from the machine due to their value. A 7200 volt, 3 phase AC cable powered two 3500 hp AC motors which then fed 13 DC motors. The roller circle or slew ring to call it a more familiar term was alone powered by three 750 hp DC motors. The last electric bill to run these massive motors was $27,000 for April 1974, thats $137,000 adjusted for inflation at todays values. Another feature of the motor room is the main hoist which needed eight 500hp DC motors to power the cables that moved the huge 90 yard dipper. The steel cable of the main hoist was 800 feet in length and weighed 25 pounds per foot. The cab is remarkably small for a machine so large. The dipper action and bucket dump are controlled on a two lever set up much like a modern hydraulic excavator with two foot pedals used to swing the house. A “groundman” was responsible for the travel of the machine as well as keeping the pit clear of debris. The groundman also adjusts the hydraulic jacks on the four corners to level the machine, compensating for an uneven pit floor. The third man on the crew was the Oiler, responsible for keeping Brutus lubricated.
In the end economics dictated the fate of Big Brutus. It’s no coincidence that his working days ended only 6 months after the 1973 oil crisis caused fuel prices to skyrocket. The enormous shovel now stands as a cathedral to the legacy of Kansas coal mining and provides a lasting focal point for ageing ex-miners and their descendants. The museum is constantly appealing for donations to paint the machine. This amounts to $250,000 every 15 years and requires 900 gallons of “Omaha orange” and 300 gallons of black paint. An estimated 30,000 people visit every year with busloads of local school children being a regular feature.
Brutus although being the largest surviving of it’s kind was only the third largest stripping shovel ever produced. A Marion 6360 dubbed “The Captain” was almost three times the size with a colossal 180 cubic yard bucket. The Captain succumbed to an internal fire in September 1991 and was finally scrapped in February 2007. The Silver Spade and Gem of Egypt, two Bucyrus-Erie model 1950B’s were also larger than Brutus, both having been scrapped. The era that culminated in the 1960’s of massive one-of-a kind giant Earthmovers like Big Brutus is over, having given way to smaller, more reliable and economical hydraulic machines coupled with trucks. Draglines are the last of the cable powered giants to retain a role in the industry although the likes of the 220 cubic yard “Big Muskie” will never be replicated. I doubt I will ever stand beside a machine as large as Brutus again. Before the visit the largest piece of machinery I’d seen was the 700 tonne Komatsu PC7000 at Bauma 2016, only a seventh the size of a Bucyrus-Erie 1850B.