The Many Faces of Mining

I’m from Kansas, the middle of Kansas, wheat fields, prairie grass, cattle county, wide open spaces. Little House on the Prairie County. What do I know about mining?
My first experience with mining, although I didn’t consider it mining at the time, was the sand pits just a couple of miles from where I grew up, along the Smoky Hill River. Over the centuries, the river meandered all over the place dropping sand sediment everywhere. Later companies would “strip” the topsoil off and scoop up the sand into huge piles ready for sale to consumers for a variety of needs.
My second experience with mining was when our 8th grade class took a field trip to the salt mines. Yes–salt mines–at Hutchinson, Kansas. Maybe you thought salt came oozing up out of the ground from places like Boonslick, Missouri which Wikipedia states “The region takes its name from a salt spring or “lick” in western Howard County first settled by Nathan and Daniel Boone, sons of Daniel Boone.” Not so at Hutchinson–you literally have to go down, deep down, 650 feet underground, where salt is mined, just like coal.
I really thought no more about mining until I went to college, at Pittsburg, Kansas, in the southeastern corner of the state. There I met the love of my life. She came from a family with coal mining in their background. When I was dating my wife, we used to go swimming in the “strip pits.” I used to love those old strip mines. Many of them were maybe 100 to 150 feet wide, or so. Some were a quarter to half mile long or so, as I remember. The way mining them worked, at the shallow end the ground sloped gently downward (so the trucks could take their loads of coal out) and as you got farther into the strip mine, you might be several hundred feet below the surface. What a great place to swim (hope you had no fear of not being able to touch bottom.) Since by the time I was in college, most of the strip mines had been abandoned, the brush and trees took over the piles of tailings and the strip mines became nice little secluded “places of paradise” for a college student out on a date, although on privately owned property I‘m sure, but as a college student, who cared.
However, not all of the strip mines were abandoned. Many of them were still being actively mined. I remember driving my ’57 Chevy, with my future wife, down into those strip mines to see “Big Brutus” in operation. I wasn’t always thinking very smart as a young college student, and I still remember the time when I was at the bottom, right next to “Big Brutus” when he took a bite out of the coal vein. The whole earth shook and I was sure we were goners. Boy did I get out of that mine fast.
So just how big was “Big Brutus”? Well he was too big to move when they quit mining with him. He sat there for years and finally taken over by “Big Brutus, a non-profit Kansas corporation dedicated to the mining heritage of Southeast Kansas.” It is a well-known tourist attraction in the Pittsburg area now. Following is a quote from the museums website.
“Big Brutus put the oooohs and aaahs in the backyard of the Heartlands!!! Miles before you reach this retired giant — you can see it on the horizon south of West Mineral, Kansas. Standing beside it makes one aware of how fragile he or she is.
“The statistics give the hard cold picture —
• Bucyrus Erie model 1850B
• largest electric shovel in the world
• 16 stories tall (160 feet)
• weight 11 million pounds
• boom 150 feet long
• dipper capacity 90 cu. yds (by heaping, 150 tons
— enough to fill three railroad cars.)
• maximum speed .22 MPH
• cost $6.5 million (in 1962)”
Fast forward to another subject dear to my heart. My West Virginia roots. The area around Fairmont, WV, just a few miles from Catawba, my ancestral home, is coal mining country. I do not propose to know much about mining in West Virginia, but I have read a lot about the many mine accidents, tragic loss of life etc. Mining has definitely been costly, monetarily, environmentally, as well as lives lost and fortunes come and gone and yet it is such a vital part of our economy. Life has never been easy for a “coal miner,” in WV, or even southeast Kansas.
One of my favorite songs of all times is “Coal Miner’s Daughter” by Loretta Lynn. I think the words of her song, “Well, I was born a coal miner’s daughter In a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler We were poor but we had love That’s the one thing that daddy made sure of,” says it all.
Now back to the original subject, the many faces of mining. Most of my adult life was lived in an around the Kansas City, MO area. Many of you may not know, but a large portion of Kansas City is built over mines. They are so big that there are whole networks of streets, businesses, railroads etc. under the city itself. I know because one year I worked as a “temp” in one underground business. When I entered the underground mine, I drove a whole mile (yes you are reading right—a whole mile) to the parking lot for the business I worked at. The temperature was always a perfect 65 degrees, and since I worked in the winter time, I never had to shovel the snow or ice off my car, and it was always warm and ready to go when I left work.
The mine I worked in was only one of many in the Kansas City area, both in Missouri and on the Kansas side. The mines are limestone rock mines. An article by Julie Buzbee on the website “Progressive Engineer Feature” states:
“The Kansas City area ranks as the leader in subsurface development with over 20 million square feet of commercial and industrial space, more than 10 percent of the total. Some 30 underground business parks populate the area, housing over 400 businesses. To give an idea of scale, SubTropolis covers 913 acres and has 6.5 miles of roads and 2.1 miles of rail corridors.”
If that doesn’t blow your mind, the underground business park I worked at, is directly under the “Worlds Of Fun” amusement park (think about that the next time you ride a roller coaster—you may be just above a mine.) But it even gets better. Park College, a privately owned college in Parkville, MO, a suburb of Kansas City, has built its campus library in one of the mines, directly below a lake. No worries about water damage, the limestone rock is too solid for that to happen.
I no longer live in the Kansas City area. I now live in Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis, in Collinsville, IL and I still find myself in coal mining country. A nearby community is called Glen Carbon, which was named to reflect its coal-mining heritage. In addition, Collinsville and much of the surrounding area, built over old coalmines with one of the ongoing associated problems being mining subsidence, is a regular occurrence.
With mining, whichever face you see, you just have to take the bad with the good. So here’s a shout out to all those who have mining in their background. For better or worse, for richer or poorer, we would not be where we are today if it were not for the hard work of the miners in our families, whichever face of mining you see.

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