Mules and the Canal

Mules played a vital role in the construction and operation of the C&O Canal in the 1800’s. In an age before highways and planes, mules were the “engines” of the boats that traveled along the canal waterway, hauling goods and people between Georgetown and Cumberland. Mules were suited to pull boats along the 184.5 miles of the canal because of their strength, intelligence, and easy-going temperament.

Today, mules help to bring the C&O Canal alive for park visitors. The park’s team of mules pull the Charles F. Mercer canal excursion boat to provide an authentic canal experience and also allow visitors to learn more about this special hybrid species during meet and greet programs. Like people, the park’s mules work until they are ready to retire.

Brown and black mule
Mules are a hybrid of a donkey and a horse and inherit the best characteristics of each parent.

NPS Photo / E. Cowan

What Is a Mule?

Mules are a perfect example of the hybrid principle: crossing two species to produce a third, often better, species more suited for certain conditions or work. Crossing a female horse (a mare) with a male donkey (a jack) produces a mule. George Washington had ambitions of breeding an "excellent race of mules" in North America. He mated his prize mares with donkeys at Mount Vernon and introduced a powerful breed of mules to the continent.

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. All of these attributes made mules the preferred “engines” of C&O Canal boat captains, as they adapted very well to life on a canal boat, could work long hours, and were stronger and smarter than horses and donkeys.

"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."
-Captain Jacob Meyers


Learn More

Discover the world of mules. Explore the history of mules as the "engines" of the C&O Canal, meet the park's current mule team, and learn about the different types of care that mules need to be healthy and happy.

The park also features photos, fun facts, and updates about the mules on its social media pages.

Volunteer With Us!

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is looking for dedicated and dependable volunteers that can assist our mule care specialist. Mule Care Volunteers assist with the feeding, grooming, care, and public interpretation of our working mules. This is the perfect opportunity for someone who is looking to refine their large animal care skills, has a desire to share their knowledge with less experienced volunteers, and is enthusiastic for our mules and the programs they help facilitate. Visit for more information and to apply.

Engines of the Canal
Engines of the Canal

Discover the history of mules and the C&O Canal.

Meet the Mules
Meet the Mules

Each mule has its own unique personality. Meet the park's current mule team!

Caring For the Mules
Caring For the Mules

Mules need consistent and thorough care. Learn more about how the park cares for its team of mules.

Mule Programs
Mule Programs

View the calendar of events for scheduled boat and 'Meet the Mules' programs.

Photo Gallery
Photo Gallery

View photos of the current mule team and mules that have since retired from working in the park.

Last updated: February 11, 2023

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Contact Info

Mailing Address:

142 W. Potomac St.
Williamsport, MD 21795



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