Steam shovel

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A Marion Power Shovel Company steam shovel excavating the Panama Canal in 1908. MarioModel90 1908.jpg
A Marion Power Shovel Company steam shovel excavating the Panama Canal in 1908.

A steam shovel is a large steam-powered excavating machine designed for lifting and moving material such as rock and soil. It is the earliest type of power shovel or excavator. Steam shovels played a major role in public works in the 19th and early 20th century, being key to the construction of railroads and the Panama Canal. The development of simpler, cheaper diesel-powered shovels caused steam shovels to fall out of favor in the 1930s.



Origins and development

Otis excavator. 1841 Otis Excavator 1841.jpg
Otis excavator. 1841

Grimshaw of Boulton & Watt devised the first steam-powered excavator in 1796. [1] In 1833 William Brunton patented another steam-powered excavator which he provided further details on in 1836. [2] [3] The steam shovel was invented by William Otis, who received a patent for his design in 1839. The first machines were known as 'partial-swing', since the boom could not rotate through 360 degrees. They were built on a railway chassis, on which the boiler and movement engines were mounted. The shovel arm and driving engines were mounted at one end of the chassis, which accounts for the limited swing. Bogies with flanged wheels were fitted, and power was taken to the wheels by a chain drive to the axles. Temporary rail tracks were laid by workers where the shovel was expected to work, and repositioned as required.

Steam shovels became more popular in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Originally configured with chain hoists, the advent of steel cable in the 1870s allowed for easier rigging to the winches.

Later machines were supplied with caterpillar tracks, obviating the need for rails.

The full-swing, 360° revolving shovel was developed in England in 1884, and became the preferred format for these machines.

Growth and uses

A steam shovel excavating for the San Diego and Arizona Railway line, circa 1919. SDARR Shovel.jpg
A steam shovel excavating for the San Diego and Arizona Railway line, circa 1919.

Expanding railway networks (in the US and the UK) fostered a demand for steam shovels. The extensive mileage of railways, and corresponding volume of material to be moved, forced the technological leap. As a result, steam shovels became commonplace.

American manufacturers included the Marion Steam Shovel Company, which was founded in 1884, and Erie Shovel Company, now owned by Caterpillar.

The booming cities in North America used shovels to dig foundations and basements for the early skyscrapers.

One hundred and two steam shovels worked in the decade-long dig of the Panama Canal across the Isthmus of Panama. Of these, seventy-seven were built by Erie; [4] the remainder were Marion shovels. These machines 'moved mountains' in their labours. The shovel crews would race to see who could move the most dirt. [5]

Steam shovels assisted mining operations: the iron mines of Minnesota, the copper mines of Chile and Montana, placer mines of the Klondike – all had earth-moving equipment. But it was with the burgeoning open-pit mines – first in Bingham Canyon, Utah – that shovels came into their own. The shovels systematically removed hillsides. As a result, steam shovels were used around the world from Australia to Russia to coal mines in China. Shovels were also used for construction, road and quarry work.

Steam shovels came into their own in the 1920s with the publicly funded road-building programs around North America. Thousands of miles of State Highways were built in this time period, together with new factories, such as Henry Ford's River Rouge Plant, and many docks, ports, buildings, and grain elevators.


During the 1930s steam shovels lost out to the simpler, cheaper diesel-powered excavating shovels that were the forerunners of those still in use today. Open-pit mines were electrified at this time. Only after the Second World War, with the advent of robust high-pressure hydraulic hoses, did the more versatile hydraulic excavators take pre-eminence over the cable-hoisting winch shovels.

Many steam shovels remained at work on the railways of developing nations until diesel engines supplanted them. Most have since been scrapped.

Large, multi-ton mining shovels still use the cable-lift shovel arrangement. In the 1950s and 1960s, Marion Shovel built massive stripping shovels for coal operations in the Eastern US. Shovels of note were the Marion 360, the Marion 5900, and the largest shovel ever built, Marion 6360 The Captain with a 180-cubic-yard (140 m3) bucket while Bucyrus constructed one of the most famous monsters: the Big Brutus, the largest still in existence. The GEM of Egypt (GEM standing for "Giant Excavating Machine" and Egypt referring to the Egypt Valley in Belmont County, eastern Ohio where it was first put to use), which operated from 1967 to 1988, was of comparable size; it has since been dismantled. [6] Although these big machines are still called steam shovels, they are more correctly known as power shovels since they use electricity to wind their winches.


100-ton steam shovel mounted on railroad tracks, cc. 1919 100 ton steam shovel, circa 1919.jpg
100-ton steam shovel mounted on railroad tracks, cc. 1919
A derelict steam shovel in Alaska; major components visible include the steam boiler, water tank, winch, main engine, boom, dipper stick, crowd engine, wheels, and excavator bucket. Shovel1.jpg
A derelict steam shovel in Alaska; major components visible include the steam boiler, water tank, winch, main engine, boom, dipper stick, crowd engine, wheels, and excavator bucket.

A steam shovel consists of:

The shovel has several individual operations: it can raise or luff the boom, extend the dipper stick with the boom or crowd engine, and raise or lower the dipper stick. Some shovels can rotate the platform on which the bulk of the machine is mounted on a turntable above its truck, similar to a modern excavator, while others, particularly those with longer bodies, have a turntable at the base of the boom, and rotate the boom.

When digging at a rock face, the operator simultaneously raises and extends the dipper stick to fill the bucket with material. When the bucket is full, the shovel is rotated to load a railway car or motor truck. The locking pin on the bucket flap is released and the load drops away. The operator lowers the dipper stick, the bucket mouth self-closes, the pin relocks automatically and the process repeats.

Steam shovels usually had at least a three-man crew: engineer, fireman and ground man. There was much jockeying to do to move shovels: rails and timber blocks to move; cables and block purchases to attach; chains and slings to rig; and so on. On soft ground, shovels used timber mats to help steady and level the ground. The early models were not self-propelled, rather they would use the boom to manoeuvre themselves.

Steam shovel manufacturers

A railroad shovel by Bucyrus; the boom rotates independently of the cab housing PSM V62 D073 Steam shovel.png
A railroad shovel by Bucyrus; the boom rotates independently of the cab housing

North American manufacturers:

European manufacturers:

Power shovel/dragline manufacturers


Ruston-Bucyrus No. 4 (built 1931) Ruston-Bucyrus No4 face shovel of 1931 at GDSF 08.jpg
Ruston-Bucyrus No. 4 (built 1931)

Most steam shovels have been scrapped, although a few reside in industrial museums and private collections.

The Le Roy Marion

The world's largest steam shovel surviving intact is a Marion machine, dating from either 1906 or 1911, located in the small American town of Le Roy, New York. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. [7]

Ruston Proctor Steam Navvy No 306

Dating from 1909, this machine Ruston's called it a 'crane navvy' [8] is the oldest surviving steam navvy in the world. [9] It was originally used at a chalk pit at Arlesey, in Bedfordshire, England. After the pit was closed, the steam navvy was simply abandoned and 'lost' as the pit became flooded with water. By the mid-1970s, the area had become a local beauty spot, known as The Blue Lagoon (from chemicals from the quarry colouring the water), and after long periods of drought, the top of the rusty navvy could be seen protruding from the water. Ruston & Hornsby expert Ray Hooley heard of its existence, and organised the difficult task of rescuing it from the water-filled pit. [10] Hooley arranged for its complete restoration to working order by apprentices at the Ruston-Bucyrus works. Subsequently it passed into the care of the Museum of Lincolnshire Life. [11] The museum was unable to make full use of the machine, and, not being stored under cover, its condition deteriorated. In 2011, Ray Hooley donated the machine to the Vintage Excavator Trust at Threlkeld Quarry and Mining Museum in Cumbria. It was moved to the quarry in 2011, [9] and (as of 2013) full restoration is once again under way. [12]

1923 Bucyrus Model 50-B

1923 Bucyrus Model 50-B at the Nederland Mining Museum Steamshovel.jpg
1923 Bucyrus Model 50-B at the Nederland Mining Museum

Twenty-five Bucyrus Model 50-B steam shovels were sent to the Panama Canal to build bridges, roads, and drains and remove the huge quantities of soil and rock cut from the canal bed. All the shovels but one were scrapped at Panama. The survivor was shipped back to California and then brought to Denver. In the early 1950s, it was transported to Rollinsville by Roy and Russell Durand, who operated it at the Lump Gulch Placer, six miles south of Nederland, Colorado, until 1978. This steam shovel is one of two (the other at the Western Minnesota Steam Thresher's Reunion in Rollag, MN) remaining operational Bucyrus Model 50-Bs, [13] and is preserved at the Nederland Mining Museum. Roots of Motive Power in Willits, CA has also acquired a 50-B and operates it for the public once a year at their Steam Festival in early September.

This is one of two steam shovels sitting abandoned off highway 5 in Zamora, CA, north of Sacramento. The sign on the back identifies it as having been manufactured by Northwest, and spraypainted on the top back of the cab is the name Carl J Woods. More Information Abandoned steam shovel in Zamora, CA.jpg
This is one of two steam shovels sitting abandoned off highway 5 in Zamora, CA, north of Sacramento. The sign on the back identifies it as having been manufactured by Northwest, and spraypainted on the top back of the cab is the name Carl J Woods. More Information

Northwest Model

Two shovels sit abandoned in Zamora, California, north of Sacramento beside Highway 5.

In fiction

See also


  1. Sinclair, John (2012-12-06). Quarrying Opencast and Alluvial Mining. ISBN   9789401176118.
  3. Hughes, Stephen (1990). The Archaeology of an Early Railway System: The Brecon Forest Tramroads. ISBN   9781871184051.
  4. "Syncrude Newsletter Article." Bucyrus International. March 16, 2006 Archived October 26, 2010, at the Wayback Machine . Retrieved 23 June 2010
  5. Baker, Ray Stannard. "Goethals: the Man and How He Works." The American Magazine. 1913. Retrieved 23 June 2010
  7. "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places . National Park Service. March 13, 2009.
  8. Photo of works plate
  9. 1 2
  10. "Ruston Proctor Steam Navvy No 306 Recovery". (includes photos of navvy at work). Retrieved 2008-01-03.
  11. "The Museum of Lincoln Life (steam engines)". (includes photo of Ruston Proctor no 306). Retrieved 2008-01-03.
  13. "Nederland Area Historical Society". (Photos of Model 50-B and history of the steam shovel). Retrieved 2011-08-22.

Related Research Articles

Excavator Type of construction equipment

Excavators are heavy construction equipment consisting of a boom, dipper, bucket and cab on a rotating platform known as the "house". The house sits atop an undercarriage with tracks or wheels. They are a natural progression from the steam shovels and often mistakenly called power shovels. All movement and functions of a hydraulic excavator are accomplished through the use of hydraulic fluid, with hydraulic cylinders and hydraulic motors. Due to the linear actuation of hydraulic cylinders, their mode of operation is fundamentally different from cable-operated excavators which use winches and steel ropes to accomplish the movements.

Backhoe Type excavating equipment (vehicle)

A backhoe—also called rear actor or back actor—is a type of excavating equipment, or digger, consisting of a digging bucket on the end of a two-part articulated arm. It is typically mounted on the back of a tractor or front loader, the latter forming a "backhoe loader". The section of the arm closest to the vehicle is known as the boom, while the section that carries the bucket is known as the dipper, both terms derived from steam shovels. The boom is generally attached to the vehicle through a pivot known as the king-post, which allows the arm to pivot left and right, usually through a total of 180 to 200 degrees.

Heavy equipment Vehicles designed for executing construction tasks

Heavy equipment or heavy machinery refers to heavy-duty vehicles, specially designed for executing construction tasks, most frequently ones involving earthwork operations or other large construction tasks. Heavy equipment usually comprises five equipment systems: implementation, traction, structure, power train, control and information.

Dragline excavator

A dragline excavator is a piece of heavy equipment used in civil engineering and surface mining.

Big Brutus

Big Brutus is the nickname of the Bucyrus-Erie model 1850-B electric shovel, which was the second largest of its type in operation in the 1960s and 1970s. Big Brutus is the centerpiece of a mining museum in West Mineral, Kansas where it was used in coal strip mining operations. The shovel was designed to dig from 20 to 69 feet down to unearth relatively shallow coal seams, which would themselves be mined with smaller equipment.

The Silver Spade

The Silver Spade was a giant power shovel used for strip mining in southeastern Ohio. Manufactured by Bucyrus-Erie, South Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the model 1950-B was one of two of this model built, the other being the GEM of Egypt. Its sole function was to remove the earth and rock overburden from the coal seam. Attempts to purchase and preserve the shovel from Consol to make it the centerpiece of a mining museum exhibit for $2.6 million fell short, and the shovel was dismantled in February 2007.

Bucket-wheel excavator

A bucket-wheel excavator (BWE) is a large heavy equipment machine used in surface mining.

Marion Power Shovel Company

Marion Power Shovel Company was an American firm that designed, manufactured and sold steam shovels, power shovels, blast hole drills, excavators, and dragline excavators for use in the construction and mining industries. The company was a major supplier of steam shovels for the construction of the Panama Canal. The company also built the two crawler-transporters used by NASA for transporting the Saturn V rocket and later the Space Shuttle to their launch pads. The company's shovels played a major role in excavation for Hoover Dam, the Holland Tunnel and the extension of the Number 7 subway line to Main Street in Flushing, Queens.

Big Muskie

Big Muskie was a coal mining Bucyrus-Erie dragline excavator owned by the Central Ohio Coal Company, weighing 13,500 short tons (12,200 t) and standing nearly 22 stories tall. It operated in the U.S. state of Ohio from 1969 to 1991.


Bucyrus-Erie was an American surface and underground mining equipment company. It was founded as Bucyrus Foundry and Manufacturing Company in Bucyrus, Ohio in 1880. Bucyrus moved its headquarters to South Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1893. In 1927, Bucyrus merged with the Erie Steam Shovel Company to form Bucyrus-Erie.

Power shovel

A power shovel is a bucket-equipped machine, usually electrically powered, used for digging and loading earth or fragmented rock and for mineral extraction. Power shovels are a type of rope/cable excavator, where the digging arm is controlled and powered by winches and steel ropes, rather than hydraulics like in the more common hydraulic excavators. Basic parts of a power shovel include the track system, cabin, cables, rack, stick, boom foot-pin, saddle block, boom, boom point sheaves and bucket. The size of bucket varies from 0.73 to 53 cubic meters.

The Osgood Company was a Marion, Ohio based manufacturer of heavy machinery, producing steam shovels, dragline excavators and cranes. What would eventually become Osgood Company was founded in 1910 as Marion Steam Shovel and Dredge Company by A.E. Cheney, the former head of sales for the Marion Steam Shovel Company. Marion Power Shovel acquired Osgood Company in 1954 and integrated Osgood's products into the Marion Power Shovel product line.


Ruston-Bucyrus Ltd was an engineering company established in 1930 and jointly owned by Ruston and Hornsby based in Lincoln, England and Bucyrus-Erie based in South Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the latter of which had operational control and into which the excavator manufacturing operation of Ruston and Hornsby was transferred. The Bucyrus company proper, from which the Bucyrus component of the Ruston-Bucyrus name was created, was an American company founded in 1880, in Bucyrus, Ohio.

A bucket is a specialized container attached to a machine, as compared to a bucket adapted for manual use by a human being. It is a bulk material handling component.

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Ruston, Proctor and Company

Ruston, Proctor and Company was established in Lincoln, England in 1857, and were manufacturers of steam tractors and engines. They later became Rustons and then Ruston & Hornsby.

Marion 6360, also known as The Captain, was a giant power shovel built by the Marion Power Shovel company. Completed in 1965, it was one of the largest land vehicles ever built, exceeded only by some dragline and bucket-wheel excavators. The shovel originally started work with Southwestern Illinois Coal Corporation, but the owners were soon bought out by Arch Coal. Everything remained the same at the mine except for the colors which were changed to red, white, and blue.

P&H Mining

P&H Mining Equipment designs, builds and supports a line of drilling and material handling machinery marketed under the "P&H" trademark and applied to minerals and energy surface mining operations worldwide. The firm is an operating subsidiary of Joy Global Inc. In 2017 Joy Global Inc. was acquired by Komatsu Limited of Tokyo, Japan and is now known as Komatsu Mining Corporation and operate as a subsidiary of Komatsu.

Marion Steam Shovel (Le Roy, New York) United States historic place

The Marion Steam Shovel, also known as the Le Roy Steam Shovel, is a historic Model 91 steam shovel manufactured by the Marion Steam Shovel and Dredge Company of Marion, Ohio. It is located on Gulf Road in the Town of Le Roy, New York, United States.

Joy Global

Joy Global Inc. was a company that manufactured and serviced heavy equipment used in the extraction and haulage of coal and minerals in both underground and surface mining. The company had manufacturing facilities in Alabama, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin, Australia, Canada, China, France, South Africa and the United Kingdom. In 2017, Joy Global was acquired by Komatsu Limited and was renamed Komatsu Mining Corp.