Saturday, July 11, 2009

Big Brutus, the Orange and Black Giant of the Prairie

A giant mechanical creature resembling an Erector-Set project on super steroids towers above the coal fields of Cherokee County in southeast Kansas, viewable from several miles away.

Coal fields? In Kansas? Yes, and yes. Coal has been mined in the sunflower state since the 1850s, when it served as the principle power source of the Santa Fe Railway. In the 1870s, coal companies began strip mining in Bourbon, Crawford, and Cherokee counties, and production peaked during World War I. A giant, $6 million electric shovel (the second largest in the world) was built in 1962 for the purpose of removing topsoil covering the thin level of coal deposits. By the middle of the next decade, however, it was finished, it no longer being practical to mine coal at this location, and too expensive to move or disassemble. So there it sits today - right where the last shovel-full was emptied from the massive scoop into rail cars.

In 1985, Big Brutus, as this giant shovel had now become popularly known, was dedicated as "a Museum and Memorial Dedicated to the Rich Coal Mining History in Southeast Kansas." Two years later the American Society of Mechanical Engineers named Big Brutus a Regional Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark. It has become a tourist favorite - particularly for youth groups whose leaders tend to favor the wonderfully wacky. Unfortunately, new insurance regulations now prohibit adventurous teens from scrambling to the top of the 160 foot (16 stories tall) boom.

Of course the decades of strip mining had a massive environmental impact, leaving the landscape scarred by deep ditches and giant gob piles. The State of Kansas enacted legislation in 1969 to assure reclamation of the land, much of what now lies within the boundaries of the Mined Land Wildlife Area - a region known for the bass lurking within those strip pit lakes, as well as hunting for turkey and deer.

Although barred from going to the top of the boom, as mentioned earlier, visitors may climb inside Big Brutus to view the massive machinery that made it work (including a top ground speed of a menacing .22 - that's point two two miles per hour). Sitting in the operator's roost (first photo below), you feel that you're a long ways off the ground, but the boom still towers above you.

Yes - do watch your head...

I wonder how big an oil can was need to keep this monster lubricated?

I wish somebody had been around at the time this picture was taken of the tracks in order to present a perspective as to their size. Perhaps I'll again find a photo of Nancy taken here several years ago. Nonetheless, let me just say that I could stand inside the track and need to get on my tippy toes in order to touch the top.

The Big Brutus site also contains a museum dedicated to mining, particularly that done in Kansas, and other outside displays of equipment.

Other sites visited on this day trip included The Dinosaur Not So National Park (previously documented on these blog pages), the haunting (but not haunted to my knowledge) ruins of St. Aloysius Church at Greenbush, the village of St. Paul with its impressive Neo-Romanesque Catholic Church and a B&B formerly a structure at the mission to the Osage Indians, and the town of Girard - onetime home of a leading writer and printer of socialist literature. Those visiting the area may also enjoy driving on sections of old US Highway 66 (Route 66) in Galena and Baxter Springs, and of course delight in one of the famous (and competing) fried chicken restaurants of Crawford County.

Those who are scholarly or curious may find more information about Kansas coal mining and/or Big Brutus at the following sites:

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Dinosaur Not So National Park...

I love roadside art. The quirkier the better. I watch Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations whenever possible. And - if you are ever behind me on a state highway or a country road, it would be wise to maintain your distance.

I brake for roadside art.
Should I post a hazard warning on my rear bumper?

Neighbors and passersby tend to regard these creators of grassroots art as "slightly daft," and that may ring true with the occasional old crackpot (to remain unnamed here), but often these folks have an unrequited artistic itch and a compulsion to entertain, to create something for pure enjoyment. Formal art training is not required - perhaps a hindrance to the spontaneous creativity needed for undertakings of this type. Such was definitely the case with the late Robert Dorris of rural Erie, Kansas, who assembled the menagerie of creatures known as the Dinosaur Not So National Park in the yard of his farm home. Dorris fabricated this herd of dinosaurs and reptiles after retiring from his career as an engineer in the Air Force.

I did not run across this attraction by accident. It was featured on Rare Visions several years ago, and I ran across it again on that PBS show's web site: Leery about going on private property to look around and take photographs, I was relieved to find family members relaxing on the front porch of the farmhouse, and they encouraged me to enjoy my visit.

The following short slide show is a whimsical view of the Dinosaur Not So National Park. As Bob Dorris hoped that his creation would bring a smile to the face of children of all ages, I hope this video will do the same for you!

Music: "Marche du Soldat" from Igor Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat"