My sweetheart’s the mule in the mines |

My sweetheart’s the mule in the mines

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Horses, mules and burros were the legs of Aspen's mines, but mules were preferred. (Willoughby collection)

My sweetheart’s the mule in the mines

I drive her without any lines;

On the dasher I sit

And I chaw and I spit

All over my sweetheart’s behind

– traditional folk song

Mules provided the “horsepower” for underground mines. They were strong enough to pull heavy loads and nimble enough to maneuver through tunnel mazes until electric locomotives out-hauled them. Miners maintained a love-hate relationship with their underground companions; they endured trying days of work with difficult mules, but could not succeed without them.

Miners carefully engineered their tunnels, creating a grade gradual enough to allow one miner to push loaded ore cars down the tunnel and empty ones uphill. If you have ever tried to lift even one wheel of those cars you know how heavy there are, even empty; adding a full load of mineral could total a ton. One person could manage the short tunnels of smaller operations, but mile-long tunnels like those of the Midnight Mine or the three-mile Cowenhoven tunnel on Smuggler Mountain required mules. One mule could pull as many as 10 cars, depending on the grade.

Although miners occasionally used burros and horses, they favored mules. Agile mules turn around in tight tunnel spaces. Horses had to be backed to a wider turn-around spot. Many tunnels in Aspen were 5 feet wide and 7 feet high, too tight for a horse. Mules could duck under protruding ceiling timbers and rock, and have been known to crawl through small holes after a cave-in.

Larger mines with many levels of tunnels built underground stables. Mules were blindfolded and lowered down the shafts. Bad air worsened by animal excrement and wet tunnel floors took their toll on mules and man alike. A Cornish superstition required that mules be returned to the surface for Christmas.

Cantankerous by nature, mules seemed to demand their chapter in mining folklore. Mules went on strike when an extra ore car was added. It seemed as if they could count. They bit and kicked their “masters.” They were known to pull their loads, seemingly on purpose, beyond the end of the rails. If they were not properly tied, then mules would take off for the outside. Doing so presented a hazard, as they were equipped with carbide lamps on their heads. One mule of the Midnight Mine escaped out the tunnel to the surface-level barn, where it shook off its lamp and started a fire.

My father’s favorite mule story illustrates the tenuous relationship between mule and mule driver. The Midnight used two mules, Maud and Jenny, who alternated workdays. Jenny was a “mean” mule. Her driver earned the nickname “Preacher White” because of his constant hymn-singing. He sang hymns to Jenny as they journeyed back and forth in the tunnel and bribed her with chocolate bars and apples and addressed her as “Dearie” and “Darling.” No one had ever heard White utter a word of profanity.

One morning White was having trouble getting Jenny started. She cut up and kicked at the cars. He said, “Jenny you are a fine big lady. Please take the train into the mine.” When he attempted to caress Jenny’s shoulder, she swung her head around and sank her teeth into his upper arm. White howled like a coyote as he picked up a board and beat Jenny, swearing at her with words worse than any known by the roughest of miners.

Mean mules were respected, especially underground where miners had little room to escape when they became vicious. They earned respect of a different kind, too; the meanest mules were the hardest workers.