Big Brutus: So big, ‘You have to see to believe’

Big Brutus, the largest existing electric shovel in the world. It is 16 stories tall and weighs 11 million pounds.
Big Brutus, the largest existing electric shovel in the world. It is 16 stories tall and weighs 11 million pounds. The Wichita Eagle

Like a mountain in the distance, Big Brutus rises above the Kansas horizon long before visitors are anywhere close it.

This part of Kansas is coal mining country.

And Big Brutus — the world’s largest electric shovel — is the last vestige of southeast Kansas’ heyday in the mining industry.

Travel along the back roads and there are glimpses of ghost towns and strip mines. Forty years after Big Brutus’ engines went quiet, this area of Kansas — where the Ozark hills and hardwood forests meet prairie — still has an industrial feel.

At one time, between Cherokee County and Crawford County, there were 63 mines that produced a third of the nation’s coal.

But the mining industry went through a downturn in southeast Kansas following World War II and never really recovered. Picks and shovels gave way to monster machines that could spit and haul the precious minerals from the land. Big Brutus was among the biggest of the big. By the 1970s, the mining operations had stopped producing, Brutus went quiet and much of the land was depleted.

The per capita income for residents in Cherokee County is $20,075 and in Crawford, it is $19,763, according to U.S. Census statistics for 2010; that compares to $38,882 in Johnson County, the state’s richest county.

Hardscrabble and tough, that’s how folks in some of the poorest counties in the state describe themselves.

“They are still doing reclamation on the properties that Big Brutus dug up,” said B.J. Harris, director of the Crawford County Convention and Visitors Bureau in Pittsburg. “They are restoring and getting the land back to hunting and fishing areas.

“As much as this area of the state is unique in coal mining, it is is also known for its outdoor recreation.”

Indeed, the state record for largemouth bass — 11.80 pounds and 28 1/2 inches long — was caught May 5, 2008, by Tyson Hallam of Scammon in a private pit lake in Cherokee County.

And white-tailed deer, more plentiful than people, stand in back-road ditches and stare as vehicles pass within feet.

Mining for coal

Lead, zinc and coal mining helped build a thriving industry in southeast Kansas. The area was the world’s leader for zinc mining at the turn of the 20th century, according to Kansaspedia, a website of the Kansas State Historical Society.

The first underground shaft-mine in Kansas was built near Scammon in 1874.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, the mines attracted immigrants, unions and socialism. Because the people mining the coal were a mix of 50 nationalities, that portion of the state was nicknamed “The Little Balkans.”

The peak mining years for coal were from the 1880s through 1970s, said Jim Lovell, who said he worked in the mines for 40 years and eight days. The underground mines were phased out by the 1930s for strip mining — where deep trenches are dug down to the layers of coal.

“There wasn’t a day I didn’t look forward to it,” said Lovell, now 79, of Cherokee. “It was like being your own boss. Everybody knew their job.”

He is a third-generation miner. His sons represent the fourth and last generation to work in the mines, he said.

The era of Brutus

Carmen Boccia said he worked as a mining electrician for 39 years.

He worked on Big Brutus — along with Lovell — during its 11-year lifespan that ended in 1974, when cheaper, low-sulfur coal mined in Wyoming and Montana forced the company to shut down the machine and mine near West Mineral.

Boccia said he was there when Big Brutus was purchased from the Bucyrus Eric company of Milwaukee in 1962 for $6.2 million and shipped to Kansas by rail car.

“It came in on well over 100 cars and was assembled on site,” Boccia said. “It took about a year to assemble it at Hallowell, Kansas.”

The shovel is 16 stories tall, weighs 11 million pounds and has a boom over 150 feet long.

“The bucket could fill 90 cubic yards and could complete a cycle in 55 seconds — that means, they could take a bite and swing the bucket 90 degrees and swing it up to drop the load and be back in ready to take a bite again in 55 seconds,” Boccia said.

The shovel operated for 11 years, seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

“I figure in that time it would have dug a pit that would have been 120 feet wide that was 40 to 50 feet deep from Hallowell, Kansas, to Fort Worth, Texas,” he said.

“At one time, they had as many as five super shovels operating around the nation,” Boccia said. “All of them have been destroyed except for Brutus.”

Like a sentinel, Brutus still stands. People flock to climb its steps and gaze out over the horizon from the operator’s seat.

Betty Becker, Big Brutus’ manager, estimates 30,000 people come annually.

Big Brutus and the Miners Hall Museum in Franklin, about 30 miles to the northeast, are a tribute to the miners.

“It just always attracted people,” Boccia said. “There was always a lot of tourist interest.”

Brutus was donated to the museum in 1984 by Pittsburg and Midway Coal Mining Co., along with 16 acres of surrounding mined land. Thousands of volunteer hours went into restoring Big Brutus, which has been designated a Regional Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Boccia and Lovell both sit on Big Brutus’ board of directors. They are continuously seeking donations for orange and black paint to keep the mighty shovel looking fit.

It costs roughly $250,000 every 15 years to paint the machine. Specialists have to be called in to cover all of its expansive territory and height.

Talk with most Kansas tourism officials and Big Brutus is listed as one of the top experiences for people to see in Kansas.

“It is a big piece of tourism in that region,” said Kelli Hilliard, the public relations and travel development manager for Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

“Big Brutus certainly represents a little-known part of our Kansas history and heritage,” Harris said. “I don’t think many people associate Kansas as a coal mining state. Yet its one of those things you have to see to believe.”

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner