Mules in the Mines: The Unsung Heroes

An unsung hero in pre-steam power, pre-electricity United States, the mule was a catalyst for growth in many American industries. Agriculture, transportation, military, mining, and power industries all found a role for the animal, relying on its strength, hardiness, and workable temper. On National Mule Day, we’re going back to the early days of industry (including Crawford County’s coal mines) to get a look at just how influential the humble mule was in the nation’s development; you might be surprised!

Our country’s first president played a significant role in developing the mule population that would eventually impact our industries. The American Mule Museum recognizes George Washington was one of the earliest American breeders of mules, after he saw the value of the animal for agricultural use. While donkeys had come to America by way of early explorers, they were too small to produce quality mules. Washington wished to breed mules for quality, size, and hardiness, but faced a problem  – the Spanish government prohibited the acquisition or exportation of their famous Andalusian donkeys. After requesting permission from Spain’s King Charles to purchase quality breeding stock, a ship docked in Boston harbor in 1785 carrying a gift to the soon-to-be president – two fine jennies and a 4-year old Spanish jack named “Royal Gift’. The jack is now credited with the development of the American mule population, which reached 855,000 by 1808.

Without the developments of steam power or electricity, mules were used in various industries for pulling power, transportation, and to produce water power. Crawford County’s own coal mining industry was one of many that relied on mules to improve efficiency. In the earliest days, surface or strip mining was carried out by teams of guided mules and horses. The animals pulled scraps and plows over coal seams which rested beneath a shallow overburden. Once the overburden was removed, wagons could remove the exposed coal. In underground tunnels, mules were used to pull coal cars through the small spaces. In some areas, the mules not only worked underground but were stabled in the mines while off duty. After serving for a set number of years, a mule was retired and slowly reintroduced to outside light.

Not only were the mules used in the actual mining process, miners found them useful in moving camp after closing a mine. At the Weir-Pittsburg seam, the mines were closed and dismantled after mining out an area, and new mines opened elsewhere in the developing coalfield. The Kansas State Historical Society reports that camps were commonly moved after the dissolution of the underground mines around which the camps originally clustered. The houses, shacks, and other buildings were commonly moved to new camps on huge, flat wagons pulled by mules and horses.

Although eventually replaced by powered machinery, mules in coal mines, on farms, and in transportation industries were indispensable in the early days of a growing economy. The mules, like other labor animals, are one example of early America’s reliance upon working animals to push efficiency beyond what manpower alone could produce.