A Run-In With A Fellow Coal Power Shovel Enthusiast

As some may recall, I’ve previously written about my affinity for old things, including my enthusiasm for vintage motorcycles and mining machines of a bygone era. No less frequently than once a year, I visit McConnellsville, Ohio to stand in awe of the bucket of the Bucyrus-Erie model 4250-W dragline “Big Muskie.”

Muskie bucket being transported to its preservation park
Big Muskie’s bucket being transported to its preservation park.
Photo: Dingey Movers

Its size is legendary, and for those who never saw the machine to which the bucket was once attached, no imagination is sufficient to capture the colossal size of the excavating marvel. It was the largest dragline ever built in the world. I appreciate history, and respect its preservation and remembrance. I also respect property, and try not to trespass.

Yesterday, after a lovely lunch with my mother, my fiancé and I took some back roads out of St. Clairsville hoping to run into a few opportunities for some nice photographs, as we often try to do. I had never been to the Harrison Coal & Reclamation Historical Park, but in anticipation of the annual Stumptown festival September 6th and 7th, I decided to stop and see the bucket of a mammoth called The Silver Spade that had been scrapped in 2007.

Spade compared to a football field
Spade compared to a football field.
Photo: NESYS.org

Before I get too far into that part of my story, let me start from the beginning…

I grew up at the edge of Belmont County, bordering Harrison County, which was quintessential “coal country.” My childhood was filled with visits to various strip mining shovels and draglines, bulldozers, dump trucks, and equipment junkyards. One of my fondest memories is from going to see the Bucyrus-Erie 1950B “GEM of Egypt” (GEM stood for Giant Earth Mover or Giant Excavating Machine, depending on which knowledgeable authority you ask) working in the cut. Another vivid recollection is of my grandfather driving me out an old haul road for what felt like forever until we came upon the Marion 5760 shovel “Mountaineer” being dismantled. Built in 1956, it had been the first of the giant power shovels.

Mountaineer posed with a steam engine for a Life Magazine photo shoot!
Mountaineer posed with a steam engine for a Life Magazine photo shoot.
Photo: Does anyone know who took this photo?  Please e-mail me.

Throughout the 1980s, the landscape was dotted with excavators weighing thousands of tons, and I was captivated by their majesty. By the early 1990s, however, strip mining had fallen out of favor, and most of the 60s-era behemoths were cut up for scrap, buried (yes, REALLY!), or left to rot. When the GEM of Egypt was scrapped in 1991, my dad took me to see what was left of it; the boom had been dropped and taken away, the bucket was gone, and the inner workings of this once-breathtaking monument to engineering had been heartlessly ripped from her.

This is the state I last saw her in.
This is the state I last saw her in.
Photo: Dale Davis via Stripmine.org

Despite signs that passively prohibited our entrance, we drove right alongside the GEM and saw her carcass from beneath the shell. I was 9, and it was the most amazing thing I’d seen up close since before my grandpa passed away in 1989. We weren’t on site long before a worker in a Consolidated Coal (now Consol Energy) truck drove up and chased us off. We weren’t there to cause any trouble, and the risk was worth it, as I’ll never forget that day along that flat section of Ohio SR-9 between Fairpoint and New Athens. Whenever I travel that road to this day, I can never stop looking over at where the GEM once stood.

The GEM working in the cut
The GEM working in the cut.
Photo: Historical Stripping Shovel Archives via Facebook

In the early 2000s, after various shutdowns due to low coal prices and mechanical failures, the sister shovel to the GEM, the “Silver Spade”, another BE 1950B (albeit with a slightly longer boom and a slightly smaller bucket) was fully refurbished and working again along SR-519 outside New Athens. It was my childhood all over again. I would often drive out to its work area and daydream that I was operating the shovel. I would take photos and post on reclamation-themed message boards about my experiences. I would read various stories about attempts to preserve the Spade as a museum after its work was done, and I was heartbroken each time I heard the news that another proposal had failed. As work continued stripping back the layers of Ohio’s surface, its future grew more and more uncertain. Finally, with more costly breakdowns and more competitive mining methods taking hold in the area, the Spade’s last bite of earth was no longer a near future, but a memory.

Unfortunately for all of us who passionately hoped the machine could be driven the few short miles to the proposed reclamation park, the breakdown had occurred in the cut—that is, it was down below a high wall, which rendered the dream of its preservation hopeless. In 2007, with little hullabaloo, onlookers sighed as the charges were detonated, the cables gave way, and the massive boom slammed into the ground, a mangled, twisted wreck. It wouldn’t be long before the Spade found itself in the same condition I had seen the GEM all those years before. Thankfully, Consol saved a few things for the Harrison Coal & Reclamation Historical Park. One bucket, a length of cable, a gear, a cable pulley, and the operator’s cab are preserved at the park, just west of New Athens on SR-519.

Bucket and cab
Bucket and Cab

Now back to my story from today…

I was eager to see the bucket of the Spade up close, and to investigate whatever else might be sitting at the park for posterity to see. When we arrived, there was a slack cable drawn across two posts to prevent anyone driving into the reclamation park. There were no signs with hours of operation, and no notice about trespassing. When the park for the Muskie bucket is closed, visitors are welcome to park outside the gate and walk up to see the historic piece. Assuming a similar policy, I parked my car and we walked in to see the equipment. A mid-sized scraper sat to the right, along with several dozers, dump trucks, cranes, and some other pieces in the back. But the jewel I’d come to see was front and center. The bucket of the Silver Spade is in rough condition, by any standard, but its size is undeniable.

Silver Spade bucket and me
Silver Spade bucket and me.

We took a few pictures, and just as I was looking and hoping there was a way to get a closer look at the operator’s cab, an older gentleman in a silver pickup truck pulled up to the entrance. I continued to marvel at the remnants of the Spade when it appeared the guy in the truck had unlocked the cable at the entrance. With this being a reclamation park, which to the best of my knowledge was established at least in part by donations, and for the enjoyment of generations to come, I assumed he was going to come say hello, maybe give me some knowledge, perhaps remind me that “Stumptown” was right around the corner, or otherwise just check things out.

A mural featuring the Mountaineer, GEM of Egypt, and The Silver Spade had been painted on the blade of an old dozer, and as I framed up a photo on my iPhone, this guy’s truck pulled right up into the shot. If I had stepped the wrong way, he probably would’ve run me over.

Mural... note the truck, which had barreled up to me... in this shot, it wasn't even stopped yet.
Note the truck, which had barreled up to me. In this shot, it wasn’t even stopped yet!

He angrily asked, “Who are you with?”

I was taken aback by his tone, and startled a touch from his storming up on us. I have a theory about attitudes rubbing off on people. I asked for clarification, “What do you mean who am I with?”

He repeated his question with a rude tone, and feeling demonized for no reason, I got an attitude as well (I shouldn’t have). I told him I wasn’t there with anyone, and that I was just taking pictures. He told me I was trespassing and that he was going to call the cops. I told him I wasn’t opposed to his calling the cops because I wasn’t a criminal and was doing nothing wrong. He told me not to get smart with him, despite the fact he had set just such a tone for the engagement. I took off my sunglasses, apologized and told him that I was from an hour away and I wanted to take a few photos. He again told me he was going to call the cops, and drove off toward the back of the park, where he sat in his truck and watched as I took a few more photos. “I’m already here, I might as well,” I thought.

Gear and chain from Silver Spade
Gear and chain from Silver Spade.

Much older boom and bucket
A much older boom and bucket.

An older shovel
An older shovel.

Strip mining truck
A strip mining truck.

I explained to Patty how the boom and bucket work on a stripping shovel (leaving out the explanation of the knee-action crowd that made the GEM and Spade special), along with what made them different from draglines. Again, the guy drove back up to where I was. “Hey!”

As I turned around, he took a picture of me. He then told me that they had been vandalized and someone had taken $3500 worth of radiators from the machines that were sitting in the park, and that he thought it was probably me. I told him I was sorry that had happened, that I appreciated his concern, that I come from a family of honest workers who hate thieves as much as he did, and that I wasn’t trying to cause any trouble.

By now, I was much more calm and collected, and was as nice as I could be to this guy. He then told me he had my license plate number and in a sort of prideful tone said “We’ll see what the prosecutor thinks of you.”

I reassured him that I wasn’t there to cause anyone any harm, and that I was an appreciator of all the relics at the site. I asked him, “Isn’t this park here so people can remember this stuff?”

He shook his head and quipped, “How would you like it if someone just walked in your house?”

I replied with disbelief, “I wouldn’t like that, because it’s a privately owned domicile, but this isn’t a private home; you don’t own all this stuff so your analogy is off.”

He about blew a gasket. “The hell I don’t! That yellow shovel back there is mine!” he stressed with a raised voice.

I acknowledged his machine and thanked him for donating it. He said his was one of the machines that had been vandalized. Again, I told him I was sorry someone had done that.

He squawked, “You people always say you’re just here to look, but then you come back and take whatever you can get!”

It’s the worst when someone steals from you. You feel completely violated and helpless. I said “Sir, I feel for you, and I can understand that you don’t want strangers taking your things, but I promise you I’m not the guy who did that.” I then extended my hand to his truck window to offer a handshake and I told him my name. I told him I live in Byesville, that I’m from Holloway, and again that I didn’t mean him any harm.

He shooed my hand away. Again, he told me the park was closed and that I was trespassing, that he was calling the cops and the prosecutor, and that I needed to “get the hell out.” He then informed me he was recording our conversation.

I told him that was perfectly fine by me. I again told him my name and once more tried to shake his hand, but again he shooed me away like a child.

I asked him when the park would be open and he said “Sept 6th and 7th!”

I asked, incredulously, “All this stuff is here and it’s only available to look at two days? When else is it opened in the year?”

He shook his head and again told me to get the hell out, adding, “It’s open once a year during Stumptown!”

I was shocked, honestly. Without a bit of attitude, I asked him if he thought that was the best way to have all this history remembered, but he just shooed me again and told me I better leave before the cops got there. I asked him if he thought I should just wait and talk to the cops, since I felt I had done nothing wrong, but he rolled his window up and drove back to the other end of the park again. I just shook my head and slowly made my way to my car, taking a few extra pictures on my walk—not to be a jerk, but because I couldn’t resist the history.

Small dragline bucket
Small dragline bucket.

I took a couple pictures of the small dragline bucket that sits outside the park, and made sure to get photos of the cable he had unlocked, which had no signs of any kind, just to hopefully cover my rear in case this guy wants to press the issue with the police. I hope to see him at Stumptown in two weeks and formally introduce myself, at which time I plan to offer him a donation to help with his stolen radiator. I don’t know the gentleman’s name, but I plan to try to find out and also contact the reclamation park to see how I can help preserve this old stuff. I’d love to get involved somehow.



~ by hamiltonjacobs on August 25, 2014.

One Response to “A Run-In With A Fellow Coal Power Shovel Enthusiast”

  1. Thank you for sharing your story. My family were coal miners and I remember visiting my grandfathers mine when I was young. I don’t have the same passion that you do but am glad you shared the pictures. It brought back some memories. I hope you have better luck in your future travels.

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