Very big news was buzzing around the counties in Ohio’s East Central and Southeast regions in 1967. Big news about a very BIG machine which was coming to the region’s coalfields.

The Central Ohio Coal Co., a subsidiary of American Electric Power, announced it planned to erect the biggest walking dragline in the world and have it up and running by 1969 at its Cumberland / Muskingum mines.

The Big Muskie, a model built by Bucyrus-Erie of Milwaukee, went to work uncovering coal in May 1969, and this is the 50th anniversary of its startup. The 14,000-ton machine with a 220 cubic yard bucket was retired in 1991.

For those of us who grew up in East Central Ohio, large strip mining machines were not uncommon. Peabody Coal Co.’s Marion 5760 — the Coal Chief — operated near Plainfield in Coshocton County.

Consol Energy’s Hanna Coal Co. operated big shovels like the GEM of Egypt, Silver Spade, Mountaineer and four Marion 5561 models called the Tiger, Green Hornet, Groundhog and Wasp in Harrison and Belmont counties.

During their lifetimes, I saw the GEM, Silver Spade, Mountaineer and Tiger operate in strip pits. And I’ve read countless pages of information about Ohio’s big coal mining machines. But I never saw the Big Muskie dig.

However, every time I drive down Route 78 in Morgan County, I visit Coal Miners Memorial Park, where the gigantic Big Muskie bucket is on display, surrounded by AEP’s ReCreation Land and Jesse Owens State Park.

On May 11, I was thrilled to attend the Harrison Coal and Reclamation Historical Park’s 25th annual dinner at Sally Buffalo Park outside of Cadiz, a place which is situated on former strip mined land.

Former Central Ohio Coal Co. engineer Steve Hook spoke and gave a PowerPoint presentation about the life and times of Big Muskie. It was the first time I’d been to the annual buffet dinner and auction since 2007.

Hook currently is the Morgan County engineer. He logged 33 years with AEP, almost all of it working at the Cumberland / Muskingum mines, which operated in Muskingum, Guernsey, Morgan and Noble counties.

The mine supplied coal to AEP’s Muskingum River Power Plant at Beverly, a facility which shut down about three years ago. Coal from the mine was transported via the unique Muskingum Electric Railroad. 

ABOUT THE MUSKIE

Big Muskie’s 230-ton bucket could hold 320 tons of earth. Of all mobile land machines, only Marion Power Shovel Co.’s Model 6360 (the Captain) shovel in Illinois was bigger — weightwise — at nearly 15,000 tons.

The Muskie’s equipment house contained 18, 1,000-horsepower and 10, 625 hp DC electric motors, and the machine used the equivalent of the power it took to light 27,500 homes. The crew of five worked around the clock.

Cables used to drag and lift the bucket were 5 inches in diameter. Its boom was 310 feet long, and when the boom was down, the entire length of the machine was 487 feet, while its width was 151 feet.

The machine moved via four "shoes" attached to hydraulic lifting cylinders. The shoes were 65 feet long and 20 feet wide. That’s why it was called a "walking" dragline as opposed to a "crawler" style.

It took more than 300 railcars and 250 trucks to get the pieces to the mine, and two years to build the Muskie. Steel chain links still connected to the preserved bucket are the size of a small child, and many times heavier.

Three layers of four cars each can fit inside the bucket, and one of the most famous photos associated with the dragline is of the entire Morgan High School marching band standing inside it.

Big Muskie removed more than 608 million tons of overburden — twice as much as during construction of the Panama Canal — and uncovered 20 million tons of coal in its 22 years of operation.

A lower demand for Ohio’s high-sulfur coal and increasing electricity costs eventually made Big Muskie unprofitable to operate. Before it ceased operations, though, it dug many of the ponds at what is now The Wilds exotic animal park.

For eight years the dragline sat idle, and after efforts to preserve it were unsuccessful, scrappers dropped its boom with explosives on May 20, 1999, and dismantled it over a several-month period.

CENTRAL OHIO COAL

Central Ohio Coal Co. got its start in the 1940s operating a mine near Fultonham in Muskingum County. It owned a number of other large mining machines, but ceased coal production after the Muskie shut down.

Coal from the firm’s mines initially went to the now defunct Philo Power Plant, and later to Beverly. Starting in 1954, COC’s coal was processed at a plant 4 1/2 miles north of Beverly. At its peak, the Beverly plant was capable of producing 1.5 gigawatts of power.

The Muskingum Electric Railroad was the first all-electric, automated rail service in the nation. Two trains with one locomotive and 15 hopper cars each made six roundtrips (15 miles one way) between the mines and prep plant every two shifts.

COC was a pioneer in land reclamation practices, too. It reclaimed and reforested land well before the state and federal governments enacted legislation requiring reclamation.

The firm planted millions of trees on some 60,000 acres, created dozens of lakes and campsites and turned its stripmined land into a haven for hunters and fishermen, with 10,000 acres eventually becoming The Wilds.

Jesse Owens State Park now spans 5,735 acres of the reclaimed land. Cleveland native Owens was a world record-setting sprinter at Ohio State who became an international sports legend after winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games.

Preserving Big Muskie could have added a huge tourist attraction to the region’s landscape. In 2007, an attempt to preserve the Silver Spade — the region’s last big mining machine — also was unsuccessful.

The Muskie bucket has attracted thousands of visitors, and thousands of photos have been taken of cars beside it or people standing inside. Imagine how many more would visit the machine if it had been preserved!

The only big mining machine which has been preserved in the United States is Bucyrus-Erie’s 1650W Big Brutus shovel near West Mineral, Kan. It operated from 1962-74, and is a huge tourist attraction.

The heyday of coal in Ohio is gone, as fossil-fired power plants are shutting down. According to the Ohio Division of Geologic Survey’s 2017 annual report, coal tonnage had dropped to 10.2 million, down 17 percent from 2016.

Only a handful of strip and underground mines remain in Ohio. The industry’s most productive year in Ohio was 1970 — shortly after the Big Muskie went to work — at 55 million tons.

NEW POWER SOURCE

As coal-fired and even nuclear power plants are retired at a rapid pace in the Appalachian region, natural gas has become the major source for power.

A fracking boom started a few years ago in Ohio, with Carroll and Harrison counties being two major production areas because they are located in the Utica and Marcellus shale plays.

Drilling has since slowed, but millions of cubic feet of natural gas are now available and several sprawling, billion-dollar natural gas processing complexes have been built in eastern Ohio.

I had the opportunity on my trip to Harrison County to drive by several of them near Hopedale, Cadiz and Scio, which are interconnected by pipelines, and in some cases, rail lines.

Mark West’s fractionation facility at Hopedale processes and stores propane and heavier purity products, and has a 200-car rail yard and truck loading and off-loading facilities. 

Utica East Ohio’s Harrison hub fractionation facility at Scio receives compressed liquid gas that is later separated into different liquid gas products, stored in tanks and loaded onto trucks and rail cars.

Located in Cadiz are refrigeration and cryogenic processing plants. MarkWest Energy Partners LP is the largest processor and fractionator of natural gas in the Appalachian Basin.

Reporter Ken Lahmers can be reached at 330-541-9400, ext. 4189 or klahmers@recordpub.com.