Engines of the Canal

"Three thousand mules is a lot of mules anyway you look at it, yet that is the number the C&O Canal had in service in the early years when over seven hundred boats piled the Canal."

- Mule Drive George Hooper Wolfe's recollection

black and white image of a boy walking a towpath with two mules
Adults and children guided mules along the towpath.

NPS Photo

During the C&O Canal's heyday, horses and mules worked alongside boat crews, pulling an estimated 400 to 500 boats every year. An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 mules worked each year on the canal. During the canal's operating years of 1828 through 1924, a normal trip from Cumberland to Georgetown took about four or five 18-hour days. A mule team would pull the boat an average of about three miles per hour.

Historically, mules were the preferred animals to pull the boats because they were cheaper to purchase than horses and were less prone to illness and injury. Mules proved to be the perfect "engines" to pull boats up and down the canal because of their endurance and intelligence, as well as their ability to work long hours without needing rest. They also had tougher skin than horses and were less likely to develop harness sores. Additionally, mules were more sure-footed and less likely to trip and injure themselves while pulling the heavy boats.

A single canal boat usually had two teams of two or three mules. Each team could tow a 140-ton boat for an average of eight hours a day, seven days a week. Like people, mules worked in shifts and would rotate teams every eight hours. While one team pulled the boat, the other rested in mule stables that were located in cabins at the front of the boat. Mules adapted very well to canal life and some canal workers cared for their mules as they were their pets. Every mule had a name such as Belle, Diamond, or Kate. The mule drivers, usually the children, would develop affection for the mules and were aware of their unique personalities.

Not all mules fared well on the canal. A few captains worked their mules too long, others whipped them to move their loaded, stationery 120-ton boat out of a lock as fast as possible; many mules developed large, painful inflammations of leg bones and joints. 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.

Mules remained the driving force of the canal through the majority of its operation. Without their trusty mule teams, canal crews would have found it very difficult to earn their livelihoods on the canal's waterways.

Quick Facts:

  • The average cost of a mule in the 1830's was $125 to $150
  • In 1873 it was recorded that canal mules ate 25,000 barrels of corn, 3,840 bushels of oats, and 500 tons of hay in a year
  • Mules weighed approximately 1,000 pounds each
  • Mules got their drinking water right from the canal. "Mule drinks" were areas along the towpath that filled with excess water where mules could drink without the hazards of falling in the canal
  • Working mules stood about 15 hands tall. One "hand" equals four inches, and is measured from the ground to the point where the neck meets the body.

A group of children meeting a mule. The mule's handler stands next to the mule and children.
'Meet the Mules' programs are a great way to learn more about mules and the canal.

NPS Photo

Creating An Authentic Experience

Today's park mules help to provide an authentic canal experience by pulling the Charles F. Mercer canal excursion boat at Great Falls, MD. Park mules have life much easier than the mules that worked along the canal in the 19th century: the mules pull at most a twenty-eight ton boat, two hours per day, two days a week, whereas their predecessors would pull a 140-ton boat eight hours a day, seven days a week.

Like the mules that came before them, the park's mules pull the boat in teams of two, one team at a time. The mules rest, drink water, and feed on hay in between boat rides. Park staff also use the time in between boat rides to host 'Meet the Mules' programs so that visitors can learn more about mules and their contributions to the history of the C&O Canal.

The National Park Service ensures year-round care for the health and safety of the park's team of mules. Each mule receives daily care and has an individual routine that includes excercise and a healthy diet. Mules are naturally affectionate animals and the park's mules are no exception, as they enjoy being around park staff and volunteers that they have grown to trust and build bonds with.

Last updated: October 6, 2023

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142 W. Potomac St.
Williamsport, MD 21795



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