On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

Mules in the Mine

This pair of mules were working a plowing exhi...

Image via Wikipedia

Museum staff have been jet-setting across the country to partake in animal-inspired conferences. Last weekend we brought the “Our Shared Experience” mobile exhibit to the Humane Society of the United States’ Taking Action for Animals Conference in the nation’s capitol. This weekend we’ll be at the annual National Animal Rights Conference in Los Angeles. We like to make the most of our trips.

While in the Washington D.C. area, we decided to do a little touring of the neighboring vicinities and discovered fascinating human-animal tales in American history. In Lansford, Pennsylvania, we stumbled upon the annual Coal Miner’s Heritage Festival held at the No. 9 Coal Mine & Museum – what a fascinating place! Visitors not only wander through an amazing array of artifacts in the Museum, but are able to hop onto a mine car, tour the mine itself and learn about the hard reality of life as a coal miner. My ears perked up as I learned that canaries weren’t the only critter used down in the mines; mules made their way to the scene very quickly.

David Kuchta contributed the following research on Mine Mules to the No. 9 Coal Mine Museum. I think you’ll find the information at times amusing, definitely fascinating and historically enlightening.

I think most people would find the subject of Mine Mules intriguing. They are part of the long history of the mining industry. In the 16th through the 18th century in the United Kingdom, the mine industry used humans as a beast of burden. Most times, it was children and women who carried or dragged the baskets of coal or rock to the main shafts. In 1842, the United Kingdom passed laws against girls and women working in the mines. Then in time they used small ponies to do the job. Later, the United Kingdom passed laws against ponies in the mines but for a short while they used boys to pull the cars to the shaft. In the United States, some of the oldest mines used oxen and then mules to pull the coal cars inside and outside the mines. Here in the Panther Valley, the Lehigh Coal & Navigational Company used mules right up to the period of shutting down most of the mine operations in the early to mid 1950s. They kept the last mules probably more as a memento to the past but the company also utilized them in areas where the electric mine motors might cause certain problems. In some areas there might have been a minor gas problem and an overhead electric trolley line could spark an explosion so they utilized the mules. Mules are very smart and along with that, they could be very thick-headed. They know what they can do and would never do any thing they couldn’t or would not want to do. Mules were known to pull at least three full mine cars full of coal. If you hooked up a fourth car they would balk at any commands and just stand there. No way would they pull the fourth car! Some mule drivers figured that the mules were counting the cars as they were hooked up with the chains. So when it came to the fourth car, they did it real quiet and discreet. The mules pulled the fourth car, unknowingly, without any problems.

In the early years when the coal companies had canals they tried using horses to pull the barges of coal. They soon found that on a hot day, the horses would want to take a dip in the canal to cool off, often dragging a young mule driver into the water which could end up with some of the drivers getting drowned. Horses are also known to pull more then they could handle and they literally would work to their death. They found out that the mule didn’t like water and would never work himself into the ground like a horse. With this experience, the job of pulling the barges on the canals was eventually turned over to mules. A good mule driver knew that treating the mules with kindness got better results then mistreatment. Some drivers were mean and ruthless and if the mule didn’t want to pull any mine cars they would hit them with the wooden sprags that were throughout the mines. The sprags are a piece of wood that you jammed in the openings of the wheels to brake the cars. When mules were mistreated they often got even. Many a miner or driver was killed by mules, by getting kicked in the chest or head. Another favorite way of evening up the score with a mule driver was to squeeze him against the rib (wall) of the mine. Most drivers kept away from any squeeze points and just treated their mules with respect. In the same case, mules were just plain cantankerous and ill mannered. Some mules wouldn’t work with any driver. The company had to find someone who the mule would work with. Yes, some mules were just like humans and just didn’t want to work. Mules also liked to get treats such as apples, carrots and believe it or not, chewing tobacco.

In the No. 9 Mine Museum in Lansford, Pennsylvania they have a death certificate for two mules that died in 1913. Their value was placed at $200 a mule. Most mining companies valued the mules life over that of a common mine labor. The Coal Companies also did not take lightly any mistreatment of mules. If a miner decided to kill a mule, he had a good chance of being fired. Many people think that the mules were never taken out of the mines and were blind. Not so! Mule stables in the mines were usually lit up with electric lights (after 1920 or so.) Mules were also taken outside to a mule barn when the miners went on strike or during a vacation period. If any mine mule was hurt or sick they would bring him out for recuperation. When the mules were brought out of the mines they would romp and run around the area. They would like to roll on their backs and just kick up their heels. Mules enjoyed getting out of the mines every so often. They often walked the mules from one mine to another such as from Spring Tunnel or No. 9 Mine to No. 6 at the other end of Lansford. Around 1964, the government passed laws outlawing the use of any animals, as beasts of burden, in any mines. It was at this time that the illustrious career of the “Mine Mule” came to an end.

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2 responses to “Mules in the Mine

  1. Scanadensis July 20, 2011 at 8:02 am

    I had no idea that mules were used in mines until now! I will have to do some research and see if they were used in my area at all. We have a rich mining heritage, but it’s iron ore and copper rather than coal.

  2. Carolyn Merino Mullin July 25, 2011 at 9:21 am

    We’d be interested to know if mules were used those mines as well. Let us know what you discover, Scanadensis. To our knowledge, very little scholarship exists on this subject.

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