WALTERSBURG — A rusting steam shovel from a bygone era has sat guarding an old strip mine along Route 51 in this Fayette County village for as long as anyone can remember. For at least 60 years, some say; even longer, say others.
The once-mighty mechanical monster, whose kind began to fall out of favor in the 1930s, was built to lift and move dirt or, as in this case, coal. With the coming of cheaper, diesel-powered shovels, the steam shovel disappeared from America’s landscape.
Except for this one.
"The steam shovel is legendary," said Michael Parzynski, who was shopping for Easter candy with his mother at Gene and Boots Candy Shop in nearby Star Junction. He "cannot imagine" not seeing it, he said, because it has become "part of the fabric of our community."
I remember passing the shovel as a child sitting in my father’s old station wagon as we rolled down the highway on some family trip to West Virginia; my mother, trying to hush three rambunctious children in the backseat, always challenged us to spot the most unusual roadside curiosity.
The steam shovel — then only a mildly tarnished red — gleamed so brightly in the sun that it caused my father to pull over to examine it, with a look in his eyes that could only come from an engineer fond of tinkering with machines.
When my own children raised havoc in the back of my minivan on the way to yet another soccer or baseball game, they too would hush as they gazed at the mysterious machine, now coated in graffiti and rust. And I soon habitually pulled over to take our photo with it.
Turns out that we weren’t the only ones to do so: I’ve passed the steam shovel hundreds of times on the way to or from Washington, D.C., and, more often than not, someone is posing in front of it for a camera. Websites, message boards and social media sites are dedicated to it, too.
Its allure crosses generations, somehow magically capturing the imagination of people passing by long after its original usefulness ended.
Funny, how odd or little things become part of our routines, traditions and lives; they find a way to gently weave themselves into part of who we are, because of our emotional connection when we see them.
It is human nature to expect — or, at least, to hope — that some things will never change, that they will always be there. And it is heartbreaking when we discover that, despite all of our amassed education, wisdom and enlightenment, nothing ever stays the same.
At some point over this past winter, time and the elements caught up with the old steam shovel: Her massive arm, which once held her crane and shovel at a towering 45-degree angle, which always seemed to be waving to the passing traveler, collapsed. It was an arm that once proudly held an American flag in the months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
All that remains upright now is the cab that held her operator.
If we are lucky, all of us will live long enough to make that nostalgic trip back to the home we grew up in, and to feel the rush of emotions — both happy and sad — as we reminisce about the lives that were lived under one roof.
Time is so transitory; we only feel its burden when a major change occurs. Sometimes that change is self-evident, and sometimes it is when the end of an era happens right before our eyes.
Years ago, steam shovels built America: They dug deep waterways so that heavy barges could float past; they cut mountain passes for trains and turnpikes; they hollowed out basements for city skyscrapers. They were the very symbol of industrial America.
But with progress came new machines, and new technologies. And most of the old girls of our early industrial age were sent to the scrap heap.
Yet, for a healthy stretch of time, a decent segment of the country still got to marvel at time figuratively standing still, reminding us of who we were, what we did, and how far we have come.
Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or [email protected]).