This heavy-metal collection includes a shovel that dug the Panama Canal

  SILVER STAR, Mont. - When you drive Montana Highway 41 past Lloyd Harkins' yard, here in the heart of mining country, you can't help noticing that Harkins has a peculiar idea of mine reclamation.


Right next to the highway Harkins has stood a humongous rusted iron wheel up on its edge. Salvaged from an air compressor in an old mine, the wheel looms more than three times as tall as a man; beside it, Harkins has stood another wheel that would crush him if it fell over, and another and another. In all, five wheels stand like monoliths in an industrial Stonehenge.


Along their base, Harkins has carefully placed a mine timber that also must be among the world's largest, milled two feet thick and 90 feet long.


Beyond them sprawl eight acres of Harkins' personal collection, which some people might see as junk - ore cars and ore buckets, steam engines, elevator-like cages, piles of heavy gears, massive spools of cable and chain, winches, drills, jacks, anvils and oddly named contraptions such as "swedges."


"I just saved this stuff because I liked it," Harkins says. "I didn't want it to be junked."


Raised in a nearby orphanage, he spent much of his life working in mines around here. For more than 40 years, as the mines retired their old machinery or shut down altogether, he's been scrounging whatever was cheap or free to anyone who could lift it.


Now his yard sums up the history of mining in the West. From this town that's so tiny there's no gas station, he's earned a quiet fame that reaches an international audience.


People passing by do double-takes at the sight of Harkins' collection. He used to let people explore the nooks and crannies, until the potential for personal-injury lawsuits forced him to get cautious. Then Hollywood, which has a thing for Montana, discovered him.


The current marquee movie, "The Postman," directed by and starring Kevin Costner, needed rusted machinery to set a post-apocalypse scene. Stuff from Harkins' yard filled the role.


More of Harkins' collection found its way to the Euro Disney amusement park in Paris, where it lends authenticity to rides that have a mining motif. Same with the Indiana Jones ride in California's Disneyland; in all, Harkins says, Disney's people have bought nine semi- truckloads of miscellany.


"I never dreamed that Disneyland would want to buy anything off me," he says, "or I'd'a collected a helluva lot more of it."


Harkins moved it all to his yard almost single-handedly, with the help of a friend who had a semi truck. His crowning achievement is the 78-foot-tall headframe that looms over everything. "It was sitting over a shaft in Butte; they were going to push it over (if no one took it away). I think I paid $100 for it.-


Using a crane and the semi, Harkins and his helper took apart the headframe, hauled the timbers over the Continental Divide and re-erected them. "It was kind of a spooky deal," he says. "We were climbing all over that thing on a day it was 20 below zero and the wind was blowing."


Harkins has slowed down some now, at age 77, feeling the aches from a lifetime of grueling and dangerous work. One time in a mine shaft, he fell 30 feet; in another mining accident, a cable snapped back on his face and nearly cost him an eye.


Still, he's active enough to deal with buyers and occasional reporters. His passion lies exposed in his yard; in his understated manner, he'll show it off. He points with pride to another rusted iron wheel that weighs 84 tons: "It was the inertia wheel for a hoist; if the power went off, it'd keep the hoist running for an hour all by itself."


Harkins can tell the stories of everything he has, whether it be the nine-foot ore-truck tires or the double-decker cage that used to haul men up and down a shaft (32 men, packed like sardines into each deck). Out back of his house is one of the steam shovels that dug the Panama Canal, which had a second career digging ore in Montana. The steam shovel is all in pieces, but Harkins swears, "I'm gonna put it together, if I live that long. No one else'll do it."


*R.R.