EDITOR'S NOTE: A former Sullivan and Charleston resident, Jerry Ginther writes a column the first Tuesday of each month in the JG-TC with his remembrances of years gone by in Charleston, Sullivan and the area.
When I was in grade school I accompanied my grandpa on a trip to Missouri to visit his older brother, Alfred. Uncle Al had recently retired from working in a nearby lead mine, so that was on the list of sights to see while we were there.
Grandpa Tom had also spent some time in the mines prior to WWII and both he and Uncle Al had many memories of the below ground operations that they thought would interest me. One such reflection was the use of mules in the mines. During the time of their employment, and before the mines were fully automated, mules were employed to move the ore cars and equipment around below the surface. Such a large number of these mules were needed that they actually had stables deep in the mine to house and care for them. These underground facilities eliminated the need to bring the mules in and out of the mine to feed, water and care for their other needs, such as caring for their feet.
Of course my questions kept the education ongoing. While I’d been around mules occasionally that were used on the Stilwell family tobacco and dairy farms in Kentucky, I had no idea of their utility in other fields. I was about to learn that they were used in many different types of mines, including coal mines. The education continued. They were used to tug barges along narrow canals, mostly in the eastern states and the Great Lakes area. Mules were used to harvest logs in timber areas, and the U.S. Army used thousands of them prior to WWII. Yes, there was a lot I didn’t know about the usefulness of mules.
There were two dilemmas common only to the mules used in mines that caught my attention. First of all, most of these mules, once taken below, spent the remainder of their lives in the dark mine shafts. They were rarely brought out of the mine alive. The second inevitable result of being in darkness for so long was the onset of blindness. All of the mules were eventually blind.
The mine was closed when we were there so we stood on the surface outside the entrance as Uncle Al talked and pointed in the different directions that the underground shafts ran from that point. It was hard to take it all in, not being able to see anything but the ground we were standing on, but I tried to imagine the depths and lengths of the mine shafts and all that went on beneath our feet when the mine had been operational.
It appears that mules and steam locomotives began to meet their demise at about the same point in time, the end of WWII. Draft horses and horse drawn farm implements were also disappearing. America was modernizing. Sleek, diesel streamliners were replacing the steam engines. The steamers were cut up and sold for scrap metal and the mules were retired to the pasture or sold to dog food producers. The mules couldn’t pull as much as a tractor, and the steam engine could not pull as big a train as its diesel competitor. Both were considered ugly relics and an impediment to progress; it was time for them to go the way of the dinosaur. It was time for a more sophisticated appearance and an increase in power. America moved on, but wanted to move more and faster.
Some of the old steam engines have been restored and are used in short line excursion trips for rail fans, but as a line in a song by the Osborne Brothers tells the nostalgic story, "You don’t see many mules these days."