“The Mine Mule Affected by the European War” – 1914

In October 1914, war raged on the European continent. In what was then called the “Great War,” industrial-scale war was waged on a massive scale for the first time. Americans were paying attention.

A commentator for the Pottsville Republican noted a curious thing about the suddenly mechanized armies smashing each other to pulp on the battlefields of Europe: horses and mules were being replaced by trucks with internal combustion engines for military purposes.

A truck used by the German Army during World War I. (Imperial War Museum)

In the Coal Region, mules had long been used for much of the grunt work and hauling within the mines. But just as the commentator noted the gradual replacement of mules on the frontlines of war, they also noted that the same phenomenon was happening in the anthracite mines of Eastern Pennsylvania. The mule was being quickly replaced by electric motor cars for hauling and by steam engines on the surface. We’ve previously discussed the final death knell in the 1920s for the mine mule, but this is among the earlier reports noting this phenomenon and estimating that the mule would eventually be obsolete.

From the Pottsville Republican, October 1914:

The Mine Mule Affected by the European War

News from the war zone in Europe shows that the auto truck is largely taking the place of the horse and mule for the transportation of army trains and this may be taken as another indication that one of the strong points of the distinguished American hybrid is to be lost. 

But it is not only in war that the mule has been stripped of its distinction, for it is also passing away in the anthracite coal fields. Although the power used about the mines has been greatly increased from year to year by reason of the deeper mining, which makes longer hauls necessary and because of the increased output of the collieries, figures show that the mule has decreased in numbers.

His place is being taken by electric and steam driven machinery, and it is probable that the decrease of the time honored mine mule will continue to show a decrease in numbers as succeeding years pass, as millions of dollars are being saved annually by the more modern power. 

Had it not been for the American mule it is doubtful if the coal regions, particularly the anthracite coal fields, would have shown such great progress during the past half century. At one time the collieries were entirely dependent upon the mule, for even the horse was unsatisfactory for this work, because it could not stand the heavy burdens which were of necessity placed upon it.

Some of these old mine mules have had but short glimpses of the light of day and some of them spent years of their lives with their eyes trained to only smoking and flickering miner lamp. 

They lived in underground stables and seemed to thrive with work and gloom, where the horse would have quickly pined away.

A mine mule at work

But it was not only inside the mines that the mule was in a class by itself, for on the rock and the culm banks and in service of all kinds about the mines which required hard and steady work, the mule so easily outstripped the horse in usefulness, that the horse became a rarity about all anthracite mines. As the production increased the number of mules also increased until some of the western states made a regular business of supplying the anthracite mines with sufficient of the animals to operate their plants. 

During the ten years preceding 1912, the horsepower of the mines was doubled, yet during that period the number of mules decreased from 16,000 to 15,000, entirely the reverse of the increased production of coal and the increased power required to mine this coal. 

During the past two years there has been even greater power installations in the coal mines than before and yet it is pretty safe to say that if figures were obtainable they would show a continued and greater decrease of the mule. This condition may be expected to continue until all the coal mines are thoroughly modernized and then it is probable that a movement in the other direction will be noted, as experienced mining men say there is certain work about the coal mine which cannot be done by any other power than mule power. 

During the ten years which have been referred to, the horse power in the anthracite coal mines increased from 354,237 to 671,802, that is the mechanical horsepower. Most of this increase was in transportation below ground by reason of the increased length of gangways and the mining of more remote veins. It was found possible to provide for this hauling more cheaply and satisfactorily with electric motors and consequently every modern colliery is now wired inside and the coal is hauled by motor cars fed by a trolley wire strung along the extensive gangways.

Incidentally it may be mentioned that this same power serves to illuminate the interior workings and the motor driver enjoys an advantage over the old time mule driver and the mule itself inasmuch as the underground workings are adequately illuminated which makes the old time miner lamp of little real use. 

The coal cars are now speedily brought long distances and up the slopes to the surface instead of having the delay of the old mule’s steady plodding, and the output where this modern device has been established has been greatly increased and at a lesser expense. 

Remember that a horsepower, as computed, is a great deal more than an actual horse could perform, it will be seen by these figures that had the same increase of power been made by the anthracite mine with mule power instead of electric and steam driven engines, the number of mules would have increased about 400,000. A good mine mule is cheap at $200, in fact $300 is not considered an excessive price to pay for a first class mule. Figuring therefore on 400,000 mules, we find that about $100,000,000 would have been spent in mules during the ten years spoken of and this would not have provided for the replacing of those which died in the service either by accident or because of natural causes. 

Electric power haulage has increased far more proportionately than has the steam driven machinery is not workable inside where the gases of the engine would make the air impure and the fire under the boilers would be a constant menace through gas explosions and through the danger of fires. This is why the electric motor has become popular inside, and it is also increasing in popularity for outside work, but the greatest increase outside is to be found in the steam engine.

But the mine mule has not been altogether eliminated from the mines by all these new fangled ideas any more than has the horse been driven from the public roads by the increased use of the auto. For short hauls and heavy grades he has thus far shown marked superiority over either electricity or steam and he will continue to be indispensable to the operation of any real first class colliery until something new is devised by man to take his place.


Featured Image: Mine mules in the mines of the Coal Region of Pennsylvania


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