Big Brutus

It sits today on the Kansas prairie like a kind of mechanical orange dinosaur, but this giant electric shovel was once an operating mining machine used to extract coal from shallow veins that run through surrounding farmland.  In 1963, the parts were shipped on 150 rail cars to be assembled on the site. The behemoth stands 16 stories tall and weighs in at 11 million pounds. Its boom alone is 150 feet long, and each dip of its shovel could hold enough material to fill three rail cars – the equivalent of 90 cubic yards or 150 tons.

Sadly, Big Brutus performed its duties only for 11 years. It was used to unearth shallow veins of coal at depths down to about 65 feet. Smaller equipment was then used to fully extract and move the coal. By 1974, the process was no longer economical, but Big Brutus was left in place, deemed too expensive to move.

It’s not the biggest shovel ever built; the record-holder was three times its size, but Big Brutus is the largest to survive. Donated by the Pittsburg & Midway Coal Mining Company, it forms the core of the mining museum that was established in 1985. In 2018, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, visitors to the site marvel not only at the size of Big Brutus, but also at its story. One could spend several hours to view all the exhibits and actual machinery displayed at the non-profit center. It tells the story of mining in this part of the world, and it is fascinating. It also provides a glimpse into what life was like in Kansas in times past.

It is awesome to stand next to the metal tracks that tower over my head, and know that those gears once moved this machine across the landscape, albeit at a snail’s pace. Visitors may climb up to sit in the cab of Big Brutus, pose for photos on its platforms or in its shovel, and see small-scale models of other mining equipment in action in the Visitor Center. The Visitor Center in West Mineral, Kansas, is open seven days a week, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  

It may be an unlikely destination for a family vacation, but it’s captivating, to say the least! The truth is that Big Brutus is equally impressive for adults as for children!

Big Brutus was only one of the destinations that I visited recently on a three-day press trip through southeast Kansas. Read more of my stories and impressions in the coming days. As those of us on the trip agreed, “There’s a lot of Kansas in Kansas.”