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The Allure of Gigantic Excavators

Big Muskie bucket

A young girl stands inside the enormous bucket of “Big Muskie”, the world’s largest dragline excavator. Photo: Charles Barilleaux/Flickr 

Near McConnelsville, Ohio, just off State Route 78, is the Miners’ Memorial Park dedicated to the coal mining industry of southeastern Ohio that dominated the economy of this part of America until about fifty years ago. The small park is centered around a single exhibit—a colossal steel bucket that was once attached to the business end of the largest single-bucket digging machine ever created.

The affectionately named “Big Muskie” was a dragline excavator that stripped layers of earth from the surface to expose the shallow coal seams that ran under much of Morgan county. With each scoop, the Big Muskie could swallow 170 cubic meters of soil and rock, amounting to nearly 300 tons, hoist the load up 100 feet in the air, and deposit it two city blocks away. The machine stood 22 stories tall and weighed 12,000 tons. To run the monstrous excavator, a 5-inch-thick cable fed it electricity at 13,800 volts, enough to power 27,500 homes. The machine was so heavy that a special kind of walking mechanism had to be devised to make it mobile.

The Central Ohio Coal Company operated this immense machine for 22 years between 1969 and 1991 over 110,000 acres of hilly terrain. Over the course of its service history, Big Muskie removed twice the amount of earth moved during the construction of the Panama Canal, exposing 20 million tons of Ohio brown coal.

Big Muskie

After the 1977 Clean Air Act, mounting electricity costs and continued public opposition to strip mining operations, operating Big Muskie became unprofitable and it was removed from service in 1991. After failing to find a buyer, the coal company dismantled the machine and sold it for scrap. Only the bucket was saved, which was later incorporated into a display about the machine and about surface mining in Miners Memorial Park in McConnelsville, Ohio.

Big Muskie bucket

Photo: orientalizing/Flickr

Big Muskie bucket

Photo: Joe Schumacher/Flickr

The Silver Spade

At the Harrison Coal & Reclamation Historical Park​, about a mile west of New Athens, Ohio, are the remains of another gigantic digging machine. A large iron bucket and cab of “The Silver Spade” lies in the grass among other mining equipment. The Silver Spade was a giant power shovel used for strip mining in southeastern Ohio. It operated from 1965 until the mines closed sometime in the late 20th century. The Silver Spade was not the largest shovel built but it was probably the most famous as the last of its type operating.

The machine was 220 feet tall and weighed 6,400 tons. It could pick 143 metric tons of earth in a single bite, swing its arm 180 degrees and deposits the load more than 100 meters away. Despite the wide range of maneuvers the machine can make, The Silver Spade was surprisingly easy to control with only two hand levers and a pair of foot pedals.

The Silver Spade

Bucket and operators cab from “The Silver Spade” on Stumptown Road west of New Athens, Ohio. Photo: Roseohioresident/Wikimedia Commons

The Silver Spade

Big Brutus

Unlike Big Muskie and The Silver Spade, Big Brutus stands in one piece. This large electric shovel was the second largest of its type in operation in the 1960s and 1970s. It stands 16 stories tall and weighs nearly 6,000 tons. While it is not the largest electric shovel ever built, it’s the largest electric shovel still in existence. Big Brutus currently stands among the fields in West Mineral, in rural Kansas, where it dug its last pit. After the Pittsburg & Midway coal mine shut down in 1974, Big Brutus was moved to the fields and abandoned there, because it would have cost the company too much to dismantle the machine. Later, the community built a small museum around this single exhibit.

Big Brutus

Photo: Jessicarhein/Wikimedia Commons

Big Brutus

Photo: Anry skyhead/Wikimedia Commons

Bagger 288

One of the world’s heaviest land vehicles still in use is the 13,500-ton bucket wheel excavator called Bagger 288, currently employed at the Garzweiler open pit mine in North-Rhine Westphalia. Bagger 288 is equipped with a rotating wheel with 18 buckets attached around the edges to continually shovel earth at a rate of 240,000 cubic meters a day, equivalent to digging up a football field to 30 meters deep. Despite its enormous weight, Bagger 288 can easily drive over soil, gravel or even grass leaving tracks no deeper than a human footprint. This is possible because of its twelve crawlers that evenly distribute the weight over a large surface.

The Bagger 288 belongs to a group of similar sized and built vehicles, such as Bagger 281, Bagger 285, Bagger 287, and Bagger 293, currently in use in various open-pit mines in the coal-rich North Rhine–Westphalia region in Germany.

Bagger 288

Bagger 288

The Captain

Marion 6360, also known as The Captain, no longer exist, but for the years it did, it surpassed all kinds of land vehicles humans ever built. Completed in 1965, the giant power shovel originally started work with Southwestern Illinois Coal Corporation, but the owners were soon bought out by Arch Coal.

The Captain weighed 12,700 tons, comparable to that of some of the largest dragline excavators. In a single scoop, The Captain could shovel 300 tons of rock and earth, while consuming enough electrical power to serve a town of 30,000 people.

The Captain worked until 1991, when a fire broke out in the lower works of the shovel. The damage was so great that it was never repaired. One year later, The Captain was scrapped.

 The Captain

 The Captain

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