Big Muskie

The Ohio-based dragline “Big Muskie” was the largest dragline ever constructed, and Providence’s West Kentucky Steel was at the center of building it. The company employed over 100 men, keeping crews working 24 hours a day for two years back in 1969.

Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, one of the oldest continually operational businesses in the city of Providence closed its doors earlier this year.

After 62 years in operation, West Kentucky Steel officially closed its doors in May following a steady decline in business with the mining industry over the last decade, and the sudden loss of business due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

“All lot of mines had already put in their own fabrication shops,” said general manager Eddie Gooch. “But when COVID-19 hit, the mines started telling us not to come to the mines. They might have equipment setting on the dock that needed to be worked on, but we weren’t allowed to go work on it. They just weren’t spending any money.”

By May, the company was down to just five employees. Eddie Gooch said he looked at options such as the Federal Government’s PPP loans, but nothing fit the needs of their company.

“This wasn’t just one thing, it was several issues that were just made worse by COVID-19,” he explained. “The PPP loan, for example, would have given us two and a half months of salaries for our employees. That money was forgivable, if you only used it for payroll. It didn’t do anything to help with the other issues. We couldn’t use it to pay expenses.”

West Kentucky Steel was founded in 1958 by James A. Gooch Sr. and Walter Woolsey, but of whom had a background working in the coal industry. During their early years in business, the pair traveled around the country with work crews constructing coal prep plants and erecting draglines.

“Within ten years of opening, they’d developed a business that was a phenominal success,” said State Representative Jim Gooch Jr. “They were one of the most successful business in the country building draglines.”

Among their claim to fame is being a part of the crew that erected “Big Muskie”, the world’s largest dragline. The machine, manufactured by Bucyrus-Erie, weighed 13,500 tons and stood 22-stories tall. It was in operation from 1969 to 1991 and cost cost $25 million in 1969, the equivalent of $174 million today adjusted for inflation.

“When they were building Big Muskie, they had over 100 people working for them, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Jim Gooch. “That went on for two years.”

Big Muskie was dismantled in 1999 and sold for $700,000 worth of recycled metal to the Mayer-Pollock Steel Corporation. Its bucket was relocated to Miners’ Memorial Park, a park dedicated to all those who mined coal in Southeastern Ohio.

“Literally thousands of employees have worked there through the years, especially when daddy and them were traveling the country building draglines and prep plants,” Eddie said.

“We tried to always be a civic minded business,” Jim added. “There were a lot of people from Providence and the surrounding area who worked there, learned a trade and went on to work the rest of their careers in the mining industry. Especially when daddy and Walter Woosley were running things. They got out there and worked like everybody else. The mines all knew that if you worked for West Kentucky Steel, you were a good worker.”

Both Eddie and Jim Gooch would go on to serve both as Providence City Council members and as mayor. Jim is currently a Kentucky State Representative.

Through the years, numerous partners have been involved in business at West Kentucky Steel, including Woolsey, who died in 1969 and Kenneth Lamb. In recent years, however, it has been the Gooch family that have called the shots, with Jim, Eddie and their sister Sheila Kelley as the owners.

Eddie Gooch, who acted as the general manager of the company, began working there in 1973.

“It is really all I’ve ever known,” he said. “I started working at the shop three weeks before my 17th birthday. For 47 years I got up and I went to work there.”

Jim said that while he hated to see his father’s business closed, what he hated even more was the situation that he says led to the closure.

“You shouldn’t have to worry about the government putting up impediments that pick and choose what businesses succeed,” he stated. “The Obama administration killed the coal industry. At one point there were 50 mines operating within a couple of hundred miles of West Kentucky Steel. But the federal government put laws and regulations in place that prevented states from using their natural resources to generate cheap electricity.”

Jim even pointed out the battle over clean energy that is still being waged during the presidential election.

“We have one presidential candidate who has promised to get the United States off of fossil fuels entirely,” he said. “I don’t know if that is even possible. But it will put good hard working people out of work.”

Although the shop is now officially closed, Jim said his brother Eddie continues to take on a few small jobs here and there. He is also in charge of getting rid of equipment that is no longer needed.

“At this point, there isn’t really any hope that we’ll be able to open back up,” Jim stated.

Contact Matt Hughes at matt@journalenterprise.com or 270-667-2069

Contact Matt Hughes at matt@journalenterprise.com or 270-667-2069