Jenny’s Pennies: Big Joe

“Big Joe”

I was born in West Middlesex in 1979. My family and I moved to Florida when I was only 2 years old, then on to Georgia when I was a senior in high school. After meeting my husband in South Georgia during college we later moved to Louisiana for 7 years where he continued his career as a land surveyor and I expanded my career to work at the Veterinary College at LSU where I worked in the Large Animal ICU. Needless to say, our family are big Tigers fans! Before ending up living in Volant with our 2 boys where we plan to stay for the rest of our days, my husband and I both moved around the south and loved the hospitality, culture, and history that we were surrounded by.

People always ask us why we moved up to our little town? My husband and I love Western Pennsylvania. We literally have moved to where we vacationed. I have a huge amount of family still living in the area and my husband’s parents moved up after we decided it was finally time to plant our roots. I have really enjoyed working on Jenny’s Pennies and learning more about the place we call home. It is my hope that I can continue to learn more, share the knowledge I gain, and help others who may have forgotten an old story and can pass them on to the next generation. The inspiration for my “Big Joe” article came while sitting on my front porch, drinking sweet tea, and looking out at the big beautiful silos that are in the distance. A neighbor told me that I should have seen the view when the dragline was here and that was that, I was hooked on the story. So, lean back, grab a glass of your favorite beverage, and take a look back to the days when “Big Joe” was a big deal in our valley.

In 1986 the Marion 8050 dragline, named “Big Joe” after the owner of Adobe Mining Co. Joe Pevehouse, began its 6-year coal mining operation off Route 19 between Shaw Road and Golf Course Road and went into where the Volant bus barn is located. As I look over this picturesque section of countryside, it is hard to imagine it looking like anything other than it does today. Sometimes I forget that this area had a landscape much different than what we see now. This 1000 acre site was the location for a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week coal mining operation that I can’t begin to comprehend.

Let’s just start with some basic statistics. “Big Joe” was 425 feet long, 100 feet wide, and was 192 feet tall from the top of its boom to the ground. A weight of 6,540,000 pounds, that’s (six million five hundred forty thousand pounds)!!! It took 72,000 volts of electricity to run “Big Joe”. At the time this was the largest dragline in the entire state of Pennsylvania. This amazing machine required four 600 horse power engines to run the main motor, drag, and hoist; that’s a total of 12 engines! The entire machine sat on two long feet that measured 73 feet long by 14 feet wide, each step it took measured 6 foot and 3 inches in length. Some that worked with “Big Joe” say that when it moved it walked like a duck. One scoop from its bucket would move 65 cubic yards of dirt, that would weigh approximately 1 ½ tons. You could fit 4 full sized pickup trucks in the bucket.

When Adobe Mining Co. decided that they needed a crane the size of “Big Joe” I wonder if they realized how much it would take to just get it assembled? The cost of “Big Joe” was approximately 22,000,000 million dollars. The cost to assemble, weld, and transport the parts were an additional 2.2 million dollars. Two semi-truck loads of welding rod weighing approximately 80,000 pounds were needed to put together the entirely stick welded machine. 126 semi loads of parts were hauled from Fort Wayne Indiana to Grove City and that was just parts of the crane. The Adobe Mining Co. had to construct 2 miles of railroad, that was previously damaged, for 7 rail cars to bring other parts of the machine. A special truck with re-enforced axles had to be fabricated to haul the cab of the huge dragline. 27 truckloads of ballasts were hauled in from Los Angeles to balance “Big Joe”.

Just to power this mammoth machine General Electric built 2 MG generators that were stored in Erie and shipped to the site. This machine would transition 480 volts into the power necessary to operate “Big Joe”. Five electric drag lines connected to the machine from the generators with cables that were 5 inches in diameter and 90 feet long. These wires were all copper wires and were critical in the powering of “Big Joe”.

With all these loads of parts, welding rods, and the budget ever increasing it was time to put together “Big Joe”. The rule of thumb for this type of machine stated that it would take between 18 months to 2 years to construct. What the statistics didn’t take into account was the type of men involved with this crane; because even with troubles, crew changes, and other obstacles “Big Joe” was erected in 1 year. Marion Erector Supervisor Bill James came out of retirement to assist with the project. This was a wonderful thing because not many of these cranes were still in operation and the number of people familiar with them was very small.

Let’s get to the mining! “Big Joe” was in operation for 6 years in our quiet little area. I have heard stories of people having dates or picnics watching him work. I can only imagine passers by in awe of the massive operation that was outside their car windows. During the 24/7 mining five operators were hired to run the dragline. Twelve retention ponds were at different spots around the mining site. Currently of those 12 ponds, only 1 lake remains. The remaining lake was primarily a run off lake that is about 12 acres, 80 feet deep and has about a 14-foot slope then a steep drop into the base. This spring fed lake can be found entertaining its owner’s family with swimming, fishing, and even water skiing today.

When “Big Joe” had finished its job of mining an average of 1,500 to 2,000 tons of coal per day equaling close to 1 ½ million tons of coal, he was sold to another mining company. When the mining was done Adobe Mining Co. took on the enormous task of reclaiming the land for future use. After 18 months the 1000 acres were regraded, cleaned up and ready for the future you see today. It is so hard for me to imagine the amazing countryside that I look out and see out of my kitchen window being a strip mine. I feel lucky to own a piece of history and glad to see the beautiful agriculture, wildlife, and homes that currently occupy what was once the territory of a huge dragline named “Big Joe”!

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