On land it was the automobile and in the air it was the airplane. By 1911, the way Americans moved around was experiencing rapid change.
On Oct. 20, 1911, the Tamaqua Courier carried a small article that showed how change to a more mobile society was replacing one rugged animal that had provided years of service in helping move our local economy – the mule. Whether it was moving coal from the mines or helping transport it to markets, the dependable mule answered the call.
The article described how the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company was experimenting with a coal-powered "motor boat" to replace the towpath mule, which had tugged coal barges on the Lehigh River for decades.
"If tests now being made by the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Co. prove successful, the towpath mule is soon to be a thing of the past on the canal from Mauch Chunk to tidewater," the report stated.
He said the motor boat contained a new type of engine which could be operated all day with only two wheelbarrows of coal.
"The 'tug,' as the boatmen call it, arrived in Easton, having pulled a canal boat there from Bristol (Conn.) in better time than any mule covered the distance," he noted. "Both from the standpoint of speed and economy the new system is said to be superior and it is predicted that the mules as a source of power will soon give way to the 'tugs.'"
The mule had been a dependable worker for generations, playing an important part in Carbon County's earliest history. The animals were a fixture both inside and outside, plodding alongside miners inside the shafts while also trudging along the banks of the river with tow barges in tow.
A generation after Benjamin Franklin built his fort at the Gnadenhuetten settlement in 1756, a prominent soldier of the Revolutionary War – Jacob Weiss – settled in the town that would eventually take his name. He found it was too expensive to transport his recently discovered fossil fuel coal on the river and deeded land he owned along the Lehigh River to the Lehigh Navigation Company.
The LC&N decided to build the canal on the east side of the river which quickly attracted other businesses, including sawmills, boatyards and a large coal yard. The canal suddenly made it profitable to ship goods such as lumber, slate and animal pelts downriver.
For nearly a full century beginning in 1832, it was the transport of anthracite coal from the mines outside of Mauch Chunk to Bristol that made the coal and river commerce prosperous businesses.
It was no great surprise that mules were the animal of choice to pull the barges. They were also less obstinate, faster, and more intelligent than donkeys and they lived longer than horses. Tugging boats loaded with up to 100 tons of cargo was no problem for the sure-footed and hardy animals.
Mule drivers, who were sometimes the children of the boat captains, made sure the mules kept to the path and kept moving. When the animals had to switch sides, they could be unhitched from the boats and loaded on a wooden ferry that carried them across the river. Boat captains poled their boats across the river and re-hitched their mules on the other side.
At one point in 1857 a suspension bridge was built from Smith Island in Northampton County to the south bank of the Lehigh River to allow mules to "walk" across the river rather than be ferried. The boats' ropes were attached to the mules' harnesses as the mules walked across the bridge, allowing them to tow the boat to the other side.
Underground, the miners' devotion to their long-eared co-workers is well known. When a mine mule died, the company even issued a death certificate containing the animal's service record.
The animals seemed to have a mutual respect for their handlers. Some mules became so attached to their caretakers that they refused to take food from the hand of anyone else.
In one incident, a mule driver put his own life on the line to save his mule. After hearing the rumble of a coal car closing in on his own car, he knew that a collision was unavoidable. Within seconds, he managed to undo the heavy chains and chase the mule off the tracks with his whip just before the runaway car collided with his. The man was able to save his mule but he was caught up in the wreck, suffering internal injuries.
The coal companies also made sure the animals were protected for their work. A bonnet was used to cover the mule's head and ears, protecting the animal from hitting the trolley wires that ran along the roof of the mines.
Mules also wore a leather face mask with eye holes as a protection against the cramped quarters inside the shaft. The quality of leather was so good for these masks that miners were known to take them home to make their own shoes.
Some mules that were retired from mine service were sold for tallow. But there were some farmers who saved a number of them from the executioner by nursing them back to health and retiring them to their fields where they could spend their final years performing less-rigorous tasks.
One obstacle the mules had to overcome in adapting to their above-ground life was temporary blindness since they had spent all of their previous life working in the dimly-lighted passages of the mines.