Female dragline operators dig job dominated by menKelli Schwalbe-Knight mans a machine that moves like a humongous goose waddling through tar — backward. With a pair of joysticks and the flick of a toggle switch, she commands the colossal contraption that can dig a swimming pool-size pit in a single scoop. The 31-year-old married mother of one, who’s expecting her second child, has adapted along with a few other women in a profession dominated by lunchbox-toting men in hardhats. She operates the 7.5 million-pound Queen Bee dragline, which removes overburden on top of coal seams, for Dakota Westmoreland Corp.
By: By James MacPherson, The Associated Press , The Jamestown Sun
BEULAH, N.D. — Kelli Schwalbe-Knight mans a machine that moves like a humongous goose waddling through tar — backward. With a pair of joysticks and the flick of a toggle switch, she commands the colossal contraption that can dig a swimming pool-size pit in a single scoop.
The 31-year-old married mother of one, who’s expecting her second child, has adapted along with a few other women in a profession dominated by lunchbox-toting men in hardhats. She operates the 7.5 million-pound Queen Bee dragline, which removes overburden on top of coal seams, for Dakota Westmoreland Corp.
The Bismarck-based Lignite Energy Council says North Dakota’s four lignite mines use 11 draglines. Only three dragline operators are women, the group says.
“They don’t look at me any differently,” Schwalbe-Knight said of her male co-workers at the Beulah coal mine.
The dragline is 81 feet wide, 350 feet long and “walks” on steel shoes that are 62 feet long and 10 feet wide. It’s boom, at 284 feet, is about 40 feet longer than the height of the Capitol building in Bismarck. A five-story “house” encloses 24, 800-horsepower motors powered by 8,000 volts of electricity from a line plugged into a substation miles away.
Company president Bill Weaver said the mine has 121 union mineworkers, and only three are women.
Schwalbe-Knight is “one of our smoothest operators” on the dragline, the mine’s biggest, most expensive and important piece of machinery, he said.
Melodie Wannemacher, 60, has been a dragline operator since 1982 near Underwood for the Falkirk Mining Co.
“I think I did break some ground and I’ve moved a lot of dirt,” Wannemacher said. She runs one of the country’s biggest draglines, which has a bucket that can hold four pickups, or about twice the capacity as the machine in Beulah.
“I’m really honored and humbled to be able to run it because it is such a huge responsibility,” Wannemacher said.
Wannemacher, who is divorced and has two grown children, said the job “put my two kids through college.” She grew up on a ranch in southwest North Dakota and was an office worker, bank teller and construction worker before joining the mine.
“There are still people who believe women don’t belong in a coal mine, let alone operating the biggest piece of equipment,” Wannemacher said. “I take this real serious, and I think men out there respect me for that.”
Schwalbe-Knight has been operating the enormous earth-scooping machine for about four years. Last week, she drove it across a highway, the first such move for a dragline at the mine in about 25 years. Dozens watched as she backed the big machine across the road, a process that took more than five hours.
“It takes a special kind of woman to work at a coal mine — they can’t be afraid to get into the grease,” said Robert Moos, who has operated a dragline at the mine for 31 years.
The Queen Bee runs all day, every day, inches along of one-fifteenth mph. It will arrive at the new site in early September.
Schwalbe-Knight said part of the new area that will be mined will be on the ranch where she grew up. Schwalbe-Knight said the land will recovered with earth and grass after mining operations.
Amy Hall, spokeswoman for South Milwaukee, Wis.-based Bucyrus International Inc., said 184 draglines of all brands are operating in the U.S.
Hall had no numbers on female dragline operators, though she knows of none outside North Dakota.
Listie, Penn.-based Dragline World bills itself as the world’s largest dragline training center. Owner Jim Brennan said he’s been training operators for more than two decades but never a woman.
The jobs pay between $50,000 to $90,000 a year in North Dakota.
“It’s a good job and an ego trip beyond belief, running these monstrous machines,” Brennan said.
Cheri Cassidy, 46, has worked at BNI Coal Ltd.’s mine near Center for 15 years, and has operated a dragline for four years.
“I really like the job,” said Cassidy, who is married and has a stepchild. “When you work in this field, you need to get used to listening to the swearing and bad jokes or you’re not going to fit in.”
Cassidy, who grew up on a farm in northeast North Dakota, learned to operate heavy machinery building bridges.
“I work with a lot of good guys and some have tried to help and some have tried real hard not to help,” she said.
“One guy told me that all women should be barefoot and pregnant,” she said.
Schwalbe-Knight said she’s three months pregnant. She’s working out the details of her maternity leave with the company.
“It’s never come up,” she said. “There is nothing in the handbook.”
Schwalbe-Knight’s husband, Shawn, operates heavy machinery at the Falkirk mine. Her 11-year-old son, Al, said he’s proud of his mother.
“My mom is very talented and she has done a lot of things, but this is probably one of her top things,” the sixth-grader said.