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Mine mules



     The sturdy mules that worked in the damp passages of the dark underground have sparked the interests of people. But except for fanciful if not fictional stories and poems comparatively little factual information was written about this element of mining. Mules were tools  For decades they were an essential tool to make the mines profitable by pulling train loads of rich ore. They worked hard and lived the greater part of their useful lives as an integral part of Bisbee’s subterranean world.

Mule pulling train of "A" Cars

 When mining began in Bisbee mules were not needed. The broken ore and waste rock was loaded into small, square “A” style mine cars and pushed no more than 200-300 feet to reach a chute or hoisting shaft. During the early years each mine car pushed onto a mine cage and it was hoisted to the surface.

An “A” style mine car 5th level Southwest mine

 Men known as trammers ( later they were sometimes called “mules”) pushed these cars. This was an effective method as long as the distanced the cars were trammed was short, 500 feet or less. As the mines developed the distanced the cars needed to be pushed increased. Bisbee’s mining companies looked for a more efficient method and chose mule haulage. The decision to use mules was not a simple. These companies had to commit to purchasing these expensive animals. A typical Missouri mule cost between $150-$225 and with this had to be added the cost of building underground stables, feeding, shoeing and veterinary care. The greatest challenge and expense was enlarging tunnels to accommodate mules. The height of all tunnels had to be increased. In areas without timber holes would have been hand drilled and the extra area need blasted out. This was a time consuming task. The true challenge would have been raising timber drifts. In this dangerous task, each set of timber would need to be removed and the broken rock above the set would be removed and new timber installed.  Yet, mules were capable of pulling six of the square cars that the trammers pushed and for a much greater distance.

mule train underground

       December 27, 1902 the first mule was lowered to the 850ft. level of the Irish Mag shaft of the Calumet and Arizona Mining Company. Within a couple years mules had been introduced into their Junction and Lake Superior and Pittsburgh #3 mines. The Copper Queen Consolidated Mining Company did not bring in mules, until the Holbrook shaft caved in July 16, 1906.. The company was suddenly forced to haul its ore to the distant Gardner shaft. By late August - early September 1906, six Missouri mules had been lowered into the Copper Queen mines to haul ore from the workings of the Holbrook mine to be hoisted out the Gardner shaft.

A mule being lowered underground

     Strong animals were desired for underground work. The mules generally weighed 900-1200 lbs. Smaller mules could be easily overworked.  Bisbee mules were typically given the task to haul six “A” style mine cars distances less than 1,500 feet and with a total daily travel distance of under 15 miles. Each car would weigh about 800lbs and loaded with ore would weigh around 2,800lbs. When pulling empty cars the mules could achieve an easy trot at about five miles per hour. When they were pulling heavy loads of ore they would slow to two to three miles per hour. Mules could be forced to move faster, but this was considered potentially injurious to the animals.

A mule barn

     It was important that the mules were well cared for. The mules in Bisbee mines lived underground in dry, clean, well lighted stables. A mule barn was located on every level that used mule haulage except the upper levels of the Southwest mine, where mules could be walked out to This mine had a number of adits. (tunnel type entrances) When possible the mules were fed and watered three times daily. A limited amount of food was kept underground since rats would spoil the grain, typically oats. The rats had first been accidently brought into the mines with the straw and feed for the mules. It was important that the mules had their legs and hooves washed and dried after each shift to keep the animals healthy. the surface and stabled.


Skilled blacksmith were employed in Bisbee underground to trim the hooves and shoe the mules. A poorly applied mule shoe could cripple an animal.

Three worn mules shoes found in the Southwest mine with a new shoe

     Visitors to the Sacramento mine noted this about the 8 mules working in the mine on the 1300, 1400, 1500 and 1600 levels, “They are fat, they are robust and just like the average mule a trifle sassy”. The also commented, that the mule barns were immaculately clean and had stacks of alfalfa in them. At times when the mules were to be retired or a mine was going to be shut down temporarily. The mules were hoisted to the surface. In the summer of 1905, the mules were removed from the Calumet and Arizona mines and given a “vacation” until September the same year. Development work was being completed at this time and the mules were not needed. In 1909 the mules in the Holbrook mine were hoisted and transferred to the 1300 level of the Lowell mine by miners Tom Hargis and Al Whitney. At this time miners Joe Windsor and Hill Ruff challenged fellow miners Tom Hargis and Jack Boles to see who could “tie and jacket a mule to be lowered down a shaft the fastest.. A $100 was wagered and Hargis with his teammate Boles, felt it would be “like taking candy from a schoolgirl”. Unfortunately, the results of the contest have been lost to time.The following year the Cole shaft was shutdown and its mules were brought to the surface. One of these mules had been underground for six years and seemed rather pleased to be out of the mine. In 1921 Tom Hargis was again called on to remove the mules this time from the Gardner mine. The newspaper reported that the Copper Queen officials said that without Tom Hargis’ expertise “the only way the mules will ever be taken out will be to drive an inclined tunnel from the level they are working on to the surface. So they can walk out.” After they were on the surface the mules stood around happily blinking. Actually inclines were used in some mines to take mules out of the mines each day. At the Empire Zinc Mine at Hanover, New Mexico a spiral inclined raise was driven to take the mules out.  Mules typically worked underground about four years but some worked longer. Contrary to popular belief the mules were not blind when taken out after living underground, but they did need a little time to adjust to daylight.

            The men in charge of driving mule trains were called mule drivers. In other mining camps they were called “mule skinners” but this term did not catch on in Bisbee. The mule drivers were expected to treat the mules humanly if not with a certain amount of caring. A mule driver could become friends with his mule by caring for it and remembering that you could never trust its hind hooves. It took a special mule to work underground. It was actually recommend that mining companies purchase mules with a three day underground trial period. Bisbee mining companies could not afford to have a mule be turned into a mean spirited animal from abuse or worse yet have a mule injured or crippled. The mining companies had veterinarians on staff and sick or injured mules would not be worked.

     Mines are inherently dangerous places and mules faced many of the dangers miners did.  Rocks falling from chutes could strike a mule. Distressed mules were known to kick out supporting timbers. One common way a mule could be injured was to have its hind legs struck by the mine cars it was pulling. Tunnels underground are driven on a slight grade to allow for water drainage. This grade inclines gently toward a hoisting shaft or mine adit entrance. This results in the mules pulling loaded cars normally down grade. This makes the mine cars following the cars difficult to stop. Empty, a train of 6 mine cars weighed about 4,800lbs. To help stop the cars the mule driver would be seated on the first car behind the mule. He would reach out and place his hands on the rump of the mule and firmly pushed .This action put force in the opposite direction slowed the mine cars. At times mules would work near areas that trolley locomotives were being used.     

     Mules learned to duck their heads when they observed a trolley wire. If they didn’t their ears would receive a powerful shock when they contacted the wire.

Mules were also dangerous to miners, unlike electric locomotive mules had minds of their own and could be temperamental and sometimes scared. At the Hoatson mine on June 10, 1910 Albert Fassel was driving his mule train when his mule panicked and began running with a train of empty cars. His candle was blown out and the mule continued his wild dash through mine in darkness. Eventually, the mule tired from running with the train of cars. Fassel only suffered a badly bruised right arm. But the miners were not always this lucky. On December 27, 1913 at the Briggs mine an upset mule overturned a mine car on top of Edward Johnson and killed him. A more common way for a miner to be injured by a mule was to be between a mine car and the mine wall. If the mule moved the train a miner could be crushed between the mine car and the supporting timber/rock wall. Although a number of men were injured this way, miner, Nick Davidovich was killed this way in the Briggs mine on September 9, 1913.



     Why mules is a question often asked. They were twice as expensive as a horse by weight. Mining experts commented that good horses often could be purchased cheaply but never a good mule.  A mine haulage expert commented that “A horse is a loveable animal, a mule is not.” But then he continued to say “A mule has more wit in a minute than a horse does in a month.” It was the intelligence and they sturdiness of the mule that made it the choice animal for the job. The mules quickly learned the paths of the dark tunnels and where to stop at chutes and ore passes. They also learned to duck down unlike like horses. W.F. Boericke commented “In a low drift a horse would butt it’s brains out, while Mr. Mule ducks his head and even crouches when necessary.” Mules in a sense learned to count. When a mule started to pull a train it would feel a jerk each time a mine car began to move. This was caused by the slack in the chains between mine cars. Quickly mules learned that four cars were its expected load. At times a driver might need to add an extra car. Well if the mule started moving and felt a seventh jerk, they stopped dead in their tracks and would not move until the cars were removed. To trick the mules into pulling an additional car, the driver would remove the slack between the fourth and fifth car. This way the mule never felt the jerk of the fifth car. Sometimes more than five cars were added. The animals had the uncanny ability to tell when the shift was over. It was never completely decided whether the animals were keeping tabs on the number of trips they had made or whether its “tummy” was telling it was time to eat. Scotty Corrin a slushier block repairman and a former miner in the Holbrook mine told stories of a well known mule that mischievously delighted in walking until a miner was between his flank and the mine wall. The mule would then began gently leaning on the man slowly until the miner was trapped against the wall  . This mule would slowly increase the pressure until the man felt he was being crushed. Another mule developed a similar trick. Carefully, the mule would place his hoof on top of a man’s boot and would also slowly added pressure until the mule had inflicted serious pain on the miner.

     In 1908 the Copper Queen Consolidated began to introduce trolley locomotives underground for haulage. It was decided that even number levels like the 200, 400, 600 would be converted to electric haulage and odd numbered levels would either a combination of hand tramming and mule haulage. The 3rd level or Queen Tunnel of the Southwest mine was an exception to this it is an odd number level that was converted to electric haulage in 1915. With the introduction of Mancha battery locomotives in the 1920s the need for mules diminished, but they remained in service until 1931.

A trolley locomotive

      Today, little signs are left of the mules life underground occasionally a worn mule shoe can be found floor of a drift. No underground mule barn can be seen in Bisbee today cave-ins have a blocked access to most of the mule barns. The barn on the 200 level Czar mine near the Cuprite shaft still had all of it’s  leather harnesses laid out on boards and four collars hanging in it when last visited in the mid 1960s. A barn on the 1500 level Junction Mine was sometimes visited as a curiosity by miners in the 1960s and 70’s. It was supposed to have the names of the mules carefully written in chalk by their stalls. It now is submerged under hundreds of feet of water. Visitors to the Queen Mine tour can see a pair of carefully built mine models. Representing two eras of mining in Bisbee One of these includes scenes of mule haulage and an accurately detailed mule barn. These were built by Ralph and Tom Hargis miners who were well known for their skill and work in the Southwest and Czar Mines. They were sons of the Tom Hargis who was an expert in handling mine mules.

An  abandoned mule barn on the 1500 level Junction mine.

My Sweetheart’s a mule in a mine.

I drive her all day without lines.

On the dashboard I sit,

An tobacco I spit

All over my sweetheart’s behind.


I laid off two shifts at the mine

And thought they’d give me my time,

But the Foreman said, “No,

That Damn Mule she won’t go,

A Skinner like youse is hard to find.”


When a stranger walks into her stall

He’s in for a helluva brawl.

She kicks with a sock

And won’t haul any rock

As for work, she won’t do it at all.


For me she can do nothing wrong

Pulling ten cars right along’

The boss has a grin

As the tally rolls in

For rock in the box is his song.


Females are all quite the same.

If you want to get next to a dame,

A kind word or two

Or some sugar will do

Its all just part of the game.




“The Mine Mule is Eulogized by One who Gives the Facts” Bisbee Daily Review 26 February 1915 page 3

“Injuries are Found Fatal” Bisbee Daily Review 18 December1913 page 3

“Runaway in Mine Jars Alfred Fassel” Bisbee Daily Review 10 June 1910 page 5

“Mexican Laborer Drops Dead of Heart Failure” El Paso Herald 13 June 1910 page 7

“Sacramento Mine 5- Compartment Shaft One of the Best Appointed in World Engaged in Gigantic Work” Bisbee Daily Review 18 May 1919 page 1

“Escorting a Mine Mule To Surface Doesn’t Sound Bad And is Easy At Least When Tom Hargis is Around” Bisbee Daily Review 30 January  1921 page 3

“Gardner Shaft is to be Closed Today; Work is Shifted” Bisbee Daily Review 25 January  1921 page 2

Coggin, Mason. Rhymes of the Mines, Life Underground. Phoenix: Cowboy Miner Productions, 2006. Print.

"Mule Haulage in Metal Mines." Engineering and Mining Journal 112 (1921): 853-855. Print.

"Mules vs Horses." Mining and Scientific Press 110 (1915): 263. Print.

"The Care of Mine Mules." Mines And Minerals Vol 131 (1911): 650. Print.

Van Barnveld, Charles E.. "Mule Haulage." Mechanical Underground Loading in Metal Mines. Columbia: University of Missouri, 1924. 38-40. Print.

Young jr, Otis T.. Western Mining. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977. Print.

Graeme, Richard personnel communication August 17, 2014

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