History of Campbell County, Tennessee

Time Line


By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.  This article was published in the LaFollette Press.

It seems that most people would find the subject of mine mules interesting. 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. In the early to mid-1950s, one mine facility used mules right up to the period of shutting down most of the mine operations. 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.

Mules were many times being used for outside haulage. The engineers laid out the tunnels so that there was a slight pitch and the loaded cars moved with the pitch.

One coal company owned between 800 and 1,000 mules at one time. Mine mules were kept in underground stables along with a stable boss. Each driver was supposed to be in the mines by at least 4 a.m. to curry, feed and baby his mules in preparation for a hard day's work.

These mules were sure-footed, sturdy animals with a first-rate amount of common sense. They took well to their education for work in the mines and learned teamwork quickly. Natural leaders were made leaders of the team, pulling harder than the others, spurring them on, and guiding them over rails, switches and timbers.

The general behavior of the mules depended to a large extent on the ability of the driver to handle them and the number of mules in his team measured a man's prestige among other mule drivers. Those having six mules stood proudly at the top of the list.

Single mules pulled cars leaving the working faces of the mines and as they reached the more important gangways, then the cars were transferred along with others to a two or three mule team to haul the cars to the main gangways. They used a six-mule team to pull 25 or more cars.

Usually when brought to the surface, the mules tremble at the earth glowing in the sunshine. Later, they go almost mad with bizarre joy. The full majesty of the outside, the heavens, the grass, the trees, the breezes, suddenly sparkle their very existence. They jaunt and twist with excessive mulish glee. A miner mentioned of a mule that had spent some feverish months upon the surface after years of labor in the mines. Finally the time came when he was to be taken back. However, the mere mention of an existence of long ago was upon him and he knew that he was about to be thrown back into the wolf's gnarling mouth, which threatened to swallow him. No amount of persuasion was to get this mule back into the deep darkness. The men held conventions and discussed plans to budge that mule. The mule had persisted so long in his freedom, which ultimately won him his liberty and allowed him to stay on the surface.

After being long in the mines, the mules are apt to duck and dodge at the close glare of lamps, but some of them have been known to have piteous fears of being left in the dead darkness. One man relates that he met a boy who said that sometimes the only way he could get his team to move was to run ahead of them with the light. Afraid of the darkness, they would follow. To those mules that have known the sunlight there may come the dream of a lost paradise. Perhaps this is what they brood over as they stand solemnly flapping their ears. Perhaps, through their own thoughts, they despair and thirst for this paradise that lies to them in an unknown direction and at impossible distances.

By 1929 electric motors replaced most mules in under ground workings and the mine mules were added to the list of coal oil lamps, horses and buggies and other relics. An electric motor needed no time to rest, stables weren't necessary, or veterinarians to keep it in shape. It could haul fourteen cars of coal whereas a mine mule could do its best with only 4 to 8. Hence the mine mule was on its way to extinction. Some miners were sad to see their "buddy" go. The four footed faithful but somewhat loose-footed friend of the hard coal miner of the past century was to be retired.

Time Line

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