Largest strip mining shovel in existence, Silver Spade may become park centerpiece

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Tim Revell, Columbus Dispatch
The 14 million-pound Silver Spade, the last giant stripping shovel to operate in the world and the largest still in existence.
Click photo for larger image.

NEW ATHENS, Ohio -- Over a rise on a road at the recently closed Mahoning Valley Mine, a giant metal arm pokes over a high wall like a snake peering over the edge of a hole.

On the other side of the hill, around a bend, the full majesty of the hulking piece of equipment beneath the 210-foot boom is revealed in a strip mine pit.

It's the 14 million-pound Silver Spade, the last giant stripping shovel to operate in the world and the largest still in existence. The character and size of the Silver Spade -- its body, roughly, would cover Market Square in Downtown Pittsburgh -- has prompted an effort to preserve the historic piece of mining equipment for posterity.

"There's just a lot of people who love this old iron [equipment]," said Claren Blackburn, president of the Harrison Coal and Reclamation Heritage Park.

Ms. Blackburn's group was formed in the early 1990s as an effort to help future generations understand the significance of what coal mining has meant to Harrison County. The group has 30 pieces of equipment, including draglines and smaller shovels parked about one-half mile from where the Silver Spade sits.

If successful in negotiations with the Silver Spade's owner, Upper St. Clair-based Consol Energy Inc., Harrison County will move the other pieces of equipment to the strip mine area where the shovel is parked and convert the site into an interpretive park, Ms. Blackburn said.

The idea to feature the Silver Spade as the centerpiece of an industrial interpretive park was partly based on a park in West Mineral, Kan., where another giant coal stripper called Big Brutus is parked. That park attracts 40,000 people a year, a number Harrison County officials believe they can easily surpass because the urban centers of Cleveland, Columbus and Pittsburgh are within a two-hour drive.

The park would be another attraction in the rural county, which includes a museum at the reconstructed birthplace of Clark Gable in the county seat, Cadiz; an exhibit at the site of the birthplace and childhood home of George Armstrong Custer in New Rumley; and a museum at Franklin College in New Athens, an influential educational institution and hotbed of abolitionist politics in the 1800s.

The Silver Spade, so named because it was built in the 25th year of its former owner, Hanna Coal Co.'s business operation, broke down for the final time April 19 after 41 years of service, well beyond its expected life of two decades. The shovel was sidelined for about a dozen of those years for repairs and because of a decline in the demand for coal in the 1980s.

"It was a relatively simple piece of equipment and it survived the test of time," said Gary Murphy, assistant superintendent of the Mahoning Valley Mine.

Technically, the Silver Spade is a Bucyrus Erie 1950-B, one of two such giant shovels the company built for $6.5 million each in the 1960s. The other shovel was called the Gem of Egypt, a name derived from the acronym for Giant Excavating Machine and the name of the Ohio mine where it operated. Most of the Gem was sold for scrap in the early 1990s, but it was cannibalized for parts for the Silver Spade when the Silver Spade resumed operations after a seven-year hiatus in 1989.

The stripping shovels were among 37 manufactured by Bucyrus Erie and other companies over the past 50 years for the specific purpose of operation in strip mines, said Thomas Berry, archivist with the Historical Construction Equipment Association in Bowling Green, Ohio. Since the last one was built 35 years ago, it's unlikely any more will ever be built, he said.

"They pretty much were built for a niche market and it's pretty much petered out over the years," Mr. Berry said.

The loss of the Gem and another massive piece of coal mining machinery, the Bucyrus Erie Big Muskie dragline in 1999, is what stirred the preservation interests of Ms. Blackburn and others in Harrison County to launch a concerted effort to save the Silver Spade.

Many overtures were made over the years to Consol in preparation for the day when the Silver Spade would no longer be operable, said Dennis Watson, chairman of the Harrison County commissioners. The local government was not too eager to push the subject because the Silver Spade's continued operation meant workers would remain employed at the best-paying jobs in the county of 16,000 people, Mr. Watson said.

Consol once employed 3,000 miners in southeastern Ohio, a figure that has dropped to 25 at the Mahoning Valley Mine, where workers are mostly involved in reclamation and cleanup efforts, company spokesman Joe Cerenzia said. The company still employs 1,100 people across the Ohio River in the panhandle of West Virginia, he said.

The Silver Spade operated with a four-man crew, per the union contract, with an operator who sat in a cab 50 feet off the ground and controlled the shovel with two hand levers and two foot pedals. The shovel operated around the clock virtually every day of the year, with the occasional day off for Christmas, Mr. Murphy said.

The Silver Spade was disabled when 19 of the 100 rollers snapped out of place between the stationary bottom and its revolving top. The rollers, which weigh 800 pounds each and are about the size of a quarter keg of beer, allow the top of the Silver Spade to revolve so the bucket could be emptied. The rollers could not be replaced without removal of the top body and repair of the chassis, a process estimated to cost millions.

The county and Consol have had preliminary discussions about the cost of the Silver Spade and the number "wasn't enough to make us flinch," Mr. Watson said. But there are other issues that will need to be addressed before any deal can be finalized, including clearing state and federal regulatory hurdles at the strip mine such as reclamation costs, he said.

For now, the Harrison Coal and Reclamation Historical Park is trying to raise money for the day when the Silver Spade will become county property. The group has pledges and contributions from across the country "well into the six figures," said Chris Copeland, executive director of the Harrison County Community Improvement Corp., the county's economic development arm.

The local preservation group will have information and videotapes about the Silver Spade available this weekend at a booth set up in Bowling Green at the Historical Construction Equipment Association's annual convention.

Mike Bucsko can be reached at or 412-263-1732.


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