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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Industrial History

It sits mostly vacant now, but for nearly 70 years, it was one of Evansville’s most important industrial sites. The Bucyrus-Erie plant on Evansville’s West Side made steam shovels that dug the Panama Canal, bulldozer blades that were used in war, and draglines that dug up Southern Indiana’s coal.

The future of the former Bucyrus-Erie site is in doubt as it awaits a new owner. Sugar Steel, which had occupied part of two buildings of the plant, moved operations to the former Whirlpool site on U.S. Highway 41 earlier this year.

Mel Gillenwater owned the property from 1987 until 2005. Bucyrus-Erie shut down operations in 1981, and the company that tried to take over the plant folded soon after. The property was put up for auction, and there was only one bid, from Gillenwater.

Gillenwater revitalized the property with repaired electrical systems, roofs, sprinklers, and more. He brought in a wide variety of industrial tenants, including a variety of steel companies. There still are two tenants on the property.

“When I bought it, it was all open,” he says. “We put in all the walls. It was 100 percent occupied when we had it. But to build something like this today would be cost-prohibitive. It’s an enormous facility. The cost to bring it back up to be usable, it would be very expensive. And it is tough for a facility this size to stay in business.”

The first Bucyrus-Erie plant in Evansville opened in 1914, where it began building steam shovels. Some of the first shovels to come out of the plant helped complete the Panama Canal, which opened in 1914. During the first and second world wars, the Evansville plant produced equipment to be used overseas.

Following the wars, the Evansville Bucyrus-Erie plant began making larger draglines, used mostly for mining. The machines would throw out a large bucket, which would then be dragged along the ground to remove the overburden on top of mineral deposits. The bigger machines could take up three or four rail cars.

Dave Rexing, a member of the Southern Indiana Antique & Machinery Club, has collected several pieces of Bucyrus-Erie memorabilia. He says Bucyrus-Erie played a big role in Evansville’s history.

“The people who worked there, they loved that place,” says Rexing. “They built a lot of construction material here. When they shut down the Evansville plant, Bucyrus just totally stopped building that equipment. They kept their Milwaukee plant going, which built a lot of the big draglines and shovels.”

On Aug. 28, 1981, Bucyrus-Erie announced it was selling its Evansville plant to Continental Emsco, a division of LTV Corp. Continental Emsco operated for only two years before shutting down operations.

“Hydraulic machines were on the market, and they were a lot easier to operate than the Bucyrus machines, which were friction-driven,” says Rexing. “They had pulleys, clutches, and cables, and they were slow. They built everything really well, to the point where it was almost over-engineered. They just did not get with the times quickly enough.”

The building is in the process of being sold, though the purchaser’s name has not been made public. Gillenwater, who is not involved in that sale, says he does not know what the purchaser intends to do with the property.

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