West Mineral, Kansas
A mighty machine once ran around the clock, clawing out house-sized chunks of ground in search of coal. Big Brutus, 16 stories high and 11 million pounds of Earth-moving muscle, mined the flat, southeastern corner of Kansas. Some said he worked too hard, used too much electricity. In 1974 the owner finally pulled Big B's plug in West Mineral; the great shovel sagged to stillness. But locals rallied to have him declared a state landmark and turned into a museum. Postcards of Brutus were mailed far and wide. The big-muscled earth-mover would not be forgotten.
A rival (and larger) earth mover -- Big Muskie -- once attracted fans in Cumberland, Ohio. Now it's gone. But Kansas is unique in its embrace of this hulk as a tourist attraction.
Driving the back roads to reach Big Brutus, you get the impression that he painted himself into a corner. Area highways have been undermined, bridges are out. He sits in a pit, pointed eastward, but Brutus ain't goin' nowhere.
Visitors can go inside and until 2004 could climb to the top of the shovel (this access was discontinued due to insurance safety concerns). The corridors and chambers are vast, with the feel of a decommissioned aircraft carrier. A 48 star flag hangs in the motor room. Big Brutus clawed the earth for a dozen years, each bucket enough to fill three train cars. Back and forth, back and forth he went, filling in behind with what he excavated in front. After several hundred miles of zig-zagging, he was shut down about a dozen miles from where he started. A sign notes that his electric bill was $27,000 during his last month of operation. A plaque in the control room salutes the "Men Of Brutus."
The climb to the top "elbow" of the shovel is made out in the open, along narrow metal steps and ladders without an overabundance of protective railing. Kids love it.
The museum at the entrance to Brutus exhibits photos of steam shovels, along with an autographed picture: "To The Coal Mining Museum, Love and Kisses, Brooke Shields" (we predict it will be there for decades). There's a six-foot-tall, 1,200-pound working model of a shovel similar to Brutus, built by miner Albert Malle over a span of 11 years in the 1930s and '40s. The gift shop sells a large selection of Big Brutus T-shirts, whistles, fans, Frisbees -- and even souvenir ballast, coal, and a Big Brutus cookbook. There's also a nice picnic area and a snack bar named The Mine Pit.