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:
- Big Brutus home site: www.bigbrutus.org
- Kansas Geological Survey site: www.kgs.ku.edu/Extension/coalmining.
- US Department of Transportation: www.fhwa.dot.gov/engineering/geotech/hazards/mine/workshops/kdot/kansaso1