“Slated to go” – The end of the mine mule in the Coal Region

As the mines of the anthracite coal fields of Eastern Pennsylvania began to mechanize in the late 1920s, miners and those close to the industry noted the disappearance of one of the Coal Region’s most stubborn, but beloved creatures.

Mine mules were increasingly going the way of electrified mine cars. And that left some with nostalgia for the days when tens of thousands of mules winding through underground labyrinths with their drivers. They pulled mine cars full of coal, timber, and other necessary supplies in pitch black darkness, and were often noted for their memory of the criss-crossing gangways and passageways that made up a colliery in the anthracite region.

To their drivers, the mine mules were a source of companionship in the dark, a guardian of sorts in dangerous situations, and yet also a potential source of trouble. Many were the stories of the unruly mule who outsmarted its driver and inflicted serious injury, or even death.

Mine Mule 2
A mine mule at work deep below ground in the Coal Region (New York Public Library)

In September 1929, as the Great Depression loomed, the Mauch Chunk Times-News reported on the removal of mules from the larger collieries of the southern anthracite coal fields. Their story reveals the somber feelings of loss as an era came to an end and the electrification of the mines became standard.


Add the mine mule to the list of coal oil lamps, horses and buggies, family albums, horse cars, framed casket plates and other relics which the march of time has relegated to the old and discarded classifications.

 Maude, the four-footed faithful somewhat loose-footed friend of the hard coal miner for the past century is to go, it is announced by the scores of collieries in the anthracite section. Her departure from the hard coal industry might be classed properly as current news for electrification of the collieries is to do away with the mine mule , a rather shocking windup. The growing trend toward displacement of steam with electric current, started by the L. C. and N. Co., with the Reading, Glen Alden, Lehigh Valley Coal Co. and other big producing interests following suit, is the reason that the faithful friend of the miner is to be retired.

While the mule was of a temperamental type that might be classed as sometimes being as high tension as are the wires that will supply the power that came from her faithful shoulders and legs, she was loved in the mines by those who cussed her the most. Companion of the miner in the darkness, often the vigilant safety first agent who sensed a body of gas or could tell that the roof was falling, she was able to warn the miner that he should be on his guard. Able to eat anything, even to taking an arm off a careless driver the mines proved too much for the average mule, despite the rough and ready existence that she was fitted for. Some time ago when “Dick,” a Lehigh Valley Company mule, died at Yorktown colliery, the remarkable ability to open the gates and locks and to feed at will at boxes thought to be safely closed, was not what the miners marveled at. Rather, the fact that “Dick” had put in seventeen years’ service.

Two years is the average length of life of a mule in the mines. Sale of mules at $50 each shows the trend of the times. The animals cost $200 to $250 each and the coal companies at one time prized them highly. An electric motor needs no time to rest it requires no stable, boss of no veterinarian to keep it in shape. It can haul fourteen cars of coal whereas a mine mule can do its best with only 4 to 8. Hence the mule is to vanish from the collieries in most parts of the hard coal fields in short order.


Featured Image: A pair of mine mules in the Coal Region (New York Public Library)

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4 thoughts on ““Slated to go” – The end of the mine mule in the Coal Region

  1. My grandfather was a mule tender
    A skill he learned on battlefields in France in ww1
    The one thing prized even till the 60’s were the wool blankets used by family till 1982 or so


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