Molly McMule's Horse Tales - 1001 Stall Stories

Working in the Coal Mines

"Ya dig 16 tons and whadda ya get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
St. Peter don' cha call me cause I can't gooooooo
I owe my soul to the company store!"

Everyone in the stable turned to look at Molly, braying away at the top of her lungs and swishing her tail in time to the tune.

"What's that, some kind of old folk tune?" asked Beau. "Sounds real depressing, Molly."

"Oh, just part of a song my grandfather used to hear the miners sing way back in the beginning of the 20th century. He worked in the mines, hauling cars of coal up shafts from deep down in the mines. It was a pretty tough life for both the miners and the mules at that time," Molly reflected.

"Yeah, I've heard some stories about those days, and some were not so pleasant," said Beau. "It was a hard job and miners had to fight for their rights and for better working conditions." Beau mentioned that he once lived in the coal-mining district of Pennsylvania and knew about some of the problems.

In Europe, before mules were used to haul coal, way back in the 1800's, girls and women were used to drag coal and rock from the mineshafts. But in 1842, the United Kingdom passed laws against their use in the mines and boys and ponies were used for a short time. In the United States, some of the oldest mines used oxen and mules both inside and outside the mines.

Molly said, "Pappy used to tell stories about the mules he worked with. Even though they were stubborn and considered 'dumb' they were pretty smart. They knew when a load was too heavy and would just dig in their hooves and not move. They could pull three cars at a time, but the miners would try to get them to pull four. But they seemed to know when they were being hooked up to four and wouldn't budge. The miners finally decided the mules could hear that fourth car being hitched and so began to very quietly attach it and, sure enough, they would manage to pull the fourth car.

"They were not treated too kindly by some of the miners. There were times when a mule driver would hit them with the 'sprags', a piece of wood that was jammed into the openings of the cars and used as a brake. But, sometimes the mules got even and would either kick or squeeze the driver against the wall of the mine. But a good mule driver knew that good treatment was rewarded with good work," Molly said. "The mules enjoyed getting treats of carrots and apples, and even chewing tobacco."

Molly continued, "One time during a 'sit down' strike for higher wages at one of the mines, the workers held a mule hostage. They refused to come out of the mine for seven days and seven nights, but demanded that the mining company should supply the mules with water, straw and hay. Of course, the miners probably used some of the water, made beds of the straw, and had food smuggled in to them by other miners, in the straw, until they agreed to come up and negotiate."

"I've heard stories that mine mules were blind because they were never out of the mines and the darkness. Is that true, Molly?" asked Ginny.

"No, not really. They were kept in lighted mine stables after the invention of electricity and were also taken outside during vacation times and during strikes," explained Molly. "They were also walked from one mine to another and any mule that got sick was treated by the company veterinarian. The mules were valued more highly than the men that worked the mines - about $200 a mule!

"Companies also used some of the mules to pull the barges on the canals. They tried using horses, but that wasn't too successful. They found that on a real hot day, the horses sometimes would decide to take a dip in the canal and pulled the drivers into the canal with them. There were a few accidental drownings as a result. Also, the horses would literally work themselves to death because they would pull more than they could handle. But the "dumb" mule would never pull more than they really could or wanted to, and also disliked water, so the drivers were safer and the mules were just as productive. Seems to me, that makes the mule pretty smart!" Molly gloated.

"Do they still use mules in the mines?" asked Desi who had been quietly listening to her stable mates discussing the subject. "What about other animals? Were there any others, or just the beasts of burden?"

"Well, if you consider the canary an animal, they were used to detect methane gas and carbon monoxide in the mines before the invention of the Safety Lamp."

"How did they do that?" she questioned Molly.

"Unfortunately, they would either pass out very quickly or die because of their fast heart rate, much more quickly than a man would be affected by the gases. They were in effect an early warning system. In later years, they had special cages made which had holes drilled in one of four sides for ventilation. They could still detect gas, but as soon as the bird fell off the perch, the fourth side of the cage was shut with an airtight door and it could then be revived with oxygen. Also, some of the miners would carry small vials of oxygen to revive the birds. But modern inventions like the lamp and methanometers have replaced the canary."

"Happy ending for the canary," said Desi. "No wonder they sing so beautifully!"

Molly just smiled in agreement. "Actually, in 1964 the government passed laws outlawing the use of any animals as beasts of burden in any mines, so that's a happy ending for the mules too!"

Molly says, there is much rich history in the coal mining regions of Pennsylvania and some tourist attractions that take you to into an actual mine. Check the internet for the Pennsylvania Coal Mine Region for a lot of information on the mining industry. Most of the information on the internet site was written by David Kuchta, an author of a number of essays on the coal mining region. Also, if you are planning a vacation nearby, check the Tourist Information and Welcome Centers for the various attractions in Jim Thorpe, Eckley, Centralia, and others in the Panther Valley.