Meet The Mules
The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal houses sixmules for its interpretive canal boat operations. The mules are a great favorite of park visitors.
The mules are enjoyed by thousands of canal boat riders each year. Many people can name the mules by sight. Although there are both male and female mules, the C&O Canal only has mare mules. Each mule has its own unique personality, strengths, and idiosyncrasies. All of the mules love attention and would like to meet you. Please come by for a visit soon.
Historically mules were the preferred animals to pull canal boats because they were cheaper to purchase than horses and were less prone to illness and injury. Mules had both longer life spans and a longer work lives than horses and could pull canal boats for twenty years if they were taken care of properly. They had tougher skin than horses and were less likely to develop harness sores. Additionally, mules were more sure-footed than horses and less likely to trip and injure themselves pulling very heavy loads. Mules also adapted very well to life on a canal boat. They actually lived in the front cabin of the boat, which was a mule stable.
Mules and the C&O Canal
"I enjoyed being with the mules. I had a lot of fun with the mules. A mule is intelligent. He has more intelligence than a horse. And good. Gentle. If you treat a mule right, he’ll treat you right."
Mules were the preferred "engines" of the C & O Canal boat captains because mules are a perfect example of the hybrid principle: crossing two species can produce a third, often better, species more suited to certain conditions. Crossing a female horse (a mare) with a male donkey (a jack) produces a mule.
Just as humans inherit certain characteristics from their parents, so do mules: from the father, the donkey, mules get intelligence, long ears and small hooves — imperative for sure-footedness. From the mother, the horse, mules get a cooperative disposition, endurance and strength: pound for pound, one mule equals about one and a half horsepower.
Most mules on the C&O Canal weighed about 1000 pounds, stood about 15 "Hands" tall (one "hand" equals four inches) at the point where the neck meets its body and cost about $125 each.
As we may treat seeing-eye dogs today, so the boatmen treated their mules: not only as workers, but also as pets and companions. Every mule had a name such as Belle, Diamond or Kate. The mule drivers, usually the children, would develop affection for and an awareness of the mules’ idiosyncrasies.
Of course, the drivers always had to be attentive to the possibility of a mule kicking. As J. P. Mose recalls,
"I was kicked by a mule. He was a young mule; we hadn’t had him very long, and I scared him…I’m telling you he caught me right in the hip. He knocked me clean across the towpath. I sort of knocked the ball out of the hip socket…He didn’t mean to do it. I just scared him."
Not all mules, however, fared well on the canal. A few captains worked their mules too long, others whipped them to move their loaded, stationery 220-ton boat out of a lock as fast as possible; many mules became spavined, that is, they developed large, painful inflammations of leg bones and joints. And during the winter, when the captains stabled their mules at farms along the Potomac, not all the farmers in charge of the mules fed the animals properly. As Theodore Lizer recalls,
"[the mules] didn’t know what an ear of corn was till we got them down here and fed them. They didn’t eat nothing but straw and water. It would take a couple of weeks to get them back [properly] on their feet again."
Today, however, the National Park Service ensures the year-round good health and safety of the mules that pull The Georgetown and the Charles Fenton Mercer. The C&O Canal stable of mules, Dolly, Ida, Lil, Ada, Molly and Nell, have life much easier than the mules of yesteryear: our mules pull at most a twenty-eight ton boat, two hours per day, four days a week, whereas their predecessors would pull a 140-ton boat eight hours a day, seven days a week.
Thus our present day mules, fed and loved by staff and visitors alike, now help to ensure the success of the re-creation of the colorful canal era in the United States.
Did You Know?
The Paw Paw Tunnel is 3,118 feet long and is lined with almost six million bricks. The 2/3 mile long tunnel saved the canal builders almost six miles of construction along the Paw Paw bends of the Potomac River. The project took twelve years to complete. The tunnel was only wide enough for single lane traffic.