The Story of Big Brutus

Posted May 3rd, 2019

If you live in the Ozarks, you have seen railroad coal cars, headed to the east when full and to the west when empty. I’ve traveled past the sign for Big Brutus, on Highway 7, near West Mineral, in Kansas for several years, and always thought, “Someday, we’re going to check this thing out.” That someday came.

Big Brutus – it sounds like the name of a cartoon character from the ’50s – is the nickname given to the Bucyrus-Erie model 1850-B electric shovel, the second largest of its kind in the world back in the 1960s and ‘70s. Used in coal strip mining at this location in southeast Kansas, it stands 16 stories high and weighed 11 million pounds in its heyday, before being “stripped” of its internal parts such as electrics. 

It cost the Pittsburg & Midway Coal Mining Company $6.5 million to purchase Big Brutus from the Bucyrus-Erie Company, based in Milwaukee, in 1962. It took 150 railroad cars transported the pieces to the site, and almost a year to assemble. Christened in 1963, the huge 90-cubic-yard shovel could pick up 150 tons per scoop. Its purpose was to remove the overburden so that 2 draglines and smaller shovels could then remove 2 seams of coal found onsite.

This site provided coal to 7 electric companies. After a decade, it had done its job too well, and with a depletion of coal here, Big Brutus was stripped of its electrical and auxiliary equipment and left for the rust pile. 

Enter local interest and the formation of a non-profit corporation, along with a $100,000 donation from The P&M Coal Company, plus a free title to Big Brutus and 16 surrounding acres. Big Brutus became a fixture in a museum and memorial dedicated on July 13, 1985, to Kansas’ coal mining history. 

Last year, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Here’s some more of this interesting story in American energy history and technology.

Big Brutus

Big Brutus museum
It’s just a short drive down a dirt road off the highway to the museum, which offers ample parking and an $8 admission fee per adult.
Deep Shaft Mine 21
The museum holds lots of models dealing with mining equipment and history. This is a model of Mine #21, near Arma, Kansas.
Mine shaft replica Big Brutus
This is a replica of an underground coal mine tipple, from around the early 1900s.
100 coal miners 1940
Taken on March 20, 1940, this photo shows 100 coal miners from the Western Coal and Mining Co., near Arma, Kansas. According to the information onsite, miners struck coal here at 250 feet in December 1925, after almost 3 months of digging. This mine was worked until the second quarter of 1941.
Coal miner helmet
The museum exhibits include everyday wear and items that miners would use.
photo Big Brutus
Of course, within the rich history of this area, Big Brutus is the star, and is featured in several photos and other documents.
under Big Brutus
Outside, there’s more to see. Here’s my husband, walking under Big Brutus. Each one of those metal pads on the crawlers weights a ton, and measures 5.5 feet long. There is a total of 256 pads on Big Brutus’s 4 crawlers. Each crawler was powered by a 250-HP electric motor, and each gear box held 2220 gallons of oil.
Big Brutus photo
You’ve really got to see it, to believe the mass of this coal monster.
Big Brutus bucket
With a capacity of 90 cubic yards, this bucket can hold a lot. It would take the operator about 55 seconds to complete 1 cycle. dumping height was 110 feet, and it could be dumped up to 150 feet away if the operator use the dipper stick and pushed it all the way out.
man in bucket big brutus
Here’s an idea of the size of the bucket. My husband is 6-feet tall.
stairs of Big Brutus
It’s a fairly physical thing, to take in this opportunity of viewing the internals of Big Brutus, and requires stair climbing and head ducking.
Big Brutus inside machines
There were 2 3500-HP electric A.C. motors mounted in the center of Big Brutus, which operated 13 D.C. generators, which operated 13 D.C. motors which operated the main winch, swing and crowd. Whew.
Control Room Big Brutus
This is the operator’s room, i.e., the control room. He was the third man on the crew. He operated the bucket and swung the house. He also gave instructions to the groundsman. His cab (pictured here) and the crew room, which is next to the cab, were the only areas that were air conditioned.
1920 dragline
This is a dragline from the 1920s. Before coming to this area in the 1930s, it was used to dredge sandbars on the Red River in Louisiana. It was disassembled and sent to Kansas, and then assembled and used to strip over-burden in the Weir city area. It was used until the 1950s. It took volunteers 5 years to dismantle, move and restore the machine to its present condition.
miners memorial kansas
Also onsite, stands a memorial to men and women in the mining industry.
Little girl big brutus
Here’s a parting shot of a little girl walking near Big Brutus. The site also offers a picnic pavilion, bathrooms and lots of space to explore, along with other historical pieces of equipment. (Jason Baird photo)

The museum is open all year, except on holidays. Visit Big Brutus Visitors’ Center online.

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