Sunday, November 20, 2011

Mule power in hardrock gold mining

My spotted herd overlooking the Mother Lode
I live on top of the Motherlode.  I expect to die either from a big tree falling or the ground opening up underneath me and swallowing me up in an abandoned gold mine shaft.  That happened in our area just a few years ago.  A man heard a noise in the kitchen and when he investigated, fell to his death into a collapsed mine shaft running under his home.  And here I thought the climactic scene in the movie musical  Paint Your Wagon was a stretch of the imagination.

Mules were a major part of the hard rock mining industry that made my current home infamous during the gold rush that began in 1850 and still continues today in some form or another.

 I am not a fan of mining and don't support such a dirty, environmentally destructive way of life.  Today, the mine is a state park where people can come, picnic, trail ride with horses, tour the beautiful grounds of the one time rich owners and have a great place for weddings and photo opportunities.  There are two tours given that show with great contrast the different life of the workers in the mine yard, and that of the wealthy mine owners who vacationed and played there.  It was not as beautiful then, as it is today because all the trees have grown back from harvesting timber to shore up the 367 miles of underground tunnels.  The pounding of the stamp mill that crushed rock 24/7, 363 days a year, that was heard miles now silent.  Exposure to the toxins used to extract gold from the rock, such as mercury and cyanide surely took their health toll and continue to do so today.  State taxpayers are still paying for toxic water cleanup.   Gold fever persists...but not in my veins.

  The Empire mine is the oldest, biggest, and richest of the hard rock gold mines.  In it's 106 year history,  5.8 million ounces of gold was extracted from Quartz rock.  In 1957 the price of gold was $35. an ounce and it cost $45. an ounce to get it the mine became unprofitable and closed.  If one were to envision the size of the total gold extracted, it would be represented in a 7' cube.  It is estimated that only 20% of the gold has been taken, so you see...I really do sit on a motherlode.  I like gold where it solid rock.

I found some wonderful drawings done by my friend Tori Thompson done for The Union
and published on Oct. 7th, 1982 in a section devoted to the history of two of the most forgotten aspects of the mines...the mules who toiled in the mines without ever seeing the light of day, and the miners themselves, many from Cornwall, England who brought their specialized expertise and culture.

The photos came from the Nevada County Historical Society, drawings came from Tori Thompson, and text was written by Evelyn M. Johnson...I made some notes in red from other research sources.

MULES IN THE MINES by Evelyn M. Johnson

As if mining wasn't hazardous enough, miners had to contend with huge beasts of burden that loved to make life challenging for the uneasy.  As many as 44 mules were said to have inhabited the depths of the Empire-Star mines in Grass Valley, and even more were employed above ground and at other mines (though their wage scale isn't recorded).  It was common practice to train those strong, intelligent animals to haul valuable gold ore.

Mules, surprisingly enough, had a good life underground for the most part.  They often outlived many of their counterparts which lived up in the sunshine.  Many a mine mule lived to a ripe old age of 35, thriving on the constant care and relative calm routine the mines provided.  After a mule entered the mine at approximately two years of age, it seldom if ever again saw the light of day.  All feed and any needed veterinary care was taken down to the mules.  The accumulation of mule manure was hauled out of the mine.  ( Air quality was a big issue.  Rotting timbers and mule manure were hauled to surface regularly to minimize explosive methane gas ).
The function of a mine mule, though admittedly not easy, was not as difficult as it might seem for a strong animal.  Mine drifts ( the horizontal passages extending out from the main vertical or incline shafts ) were surveyed and drilled on a slightly upward incline in order that water might drain back down to the main shaft area and be collected. (The Cornish miners brought technology to pump water continually out of the mines).  Mules pulled a "train" of six to eight empty ore cars up the slight grade to the work area.  When the one ton capacity cars were filled with quartz that the muckers had shoveled,  the mule was maneuvered around to the other end of the ore car "train" and then headed the load back to the shaft, usually at a brisk trot, with brakes applied in precarious places!  When the unloading chutes were reached, the cars were tipped sideways to unload their precious cargo.  Mine tailings or waste rock was similarly removed from mine drifts and stopes.  

The care, training and handling of mules was the responsibility of "mule skinners".  It was a specialized job for men who not only could cope with working underground, but possessed the confidence, understanding and respect needed to work successfully with mules.  Not all miners cared to be mule skinners! ( Miners wages were $3 dollars a day and muleskinners made $6 dollars around 1900...wages for miners in 1956 was $10-11 dollars a day ).   In mines as large as the Empire and North Star, several mule skinners, simultaneously performed the same tasks with their separate mules on the various levels of the mine where large amounts of ore deposits were being extracted.   There were reportedly only one or two mules per level.  Mules had to be groomed and checked regularly for harness sores.  Their hooves were subject to fungus growths because of the constant dampness.  Some drifts were much wetter than others.  An old photograph of Fannie the mule shows a hernia she acquired from attempting to pull too many cars for her size.  Mules were said to have counted the number of ore cars clicked into place behind them and refused to budge if the count was too high!  Many mules had a fondness for chewing tobacco and would be uncooperative unless provided their regular allotment of that delicacy.  A mule was a valuable asset to the mine operation.  Abuse of a mule would cost you your job.  Miners were much easier to come by than good mules.

A major cause for concern in the maintenance of these work animals was their eyesight.  In the dim light, or continued absence of light, a mule's eye muscles could become so weak as to render the mule blind and therefore useless to the mine operation.  The mule stalls were located close to the main shaft at the various levels, and because of the mule's need for light, were the first locations to be illuminated when the mine was first electrified back in 1891. Out in the drifts, the miners' lights had to suffice.  It is also reported that some mules wore their own carbide lights on their bridles.  Some mules became so accustomed to their routines that they could have functioned blind.  In fact, routine became so automatic for some mules, they reportedly got a kick out of switching tracks themselves, saving the muleskinners this standard procedure.  Those were probably the same mules that were serenaded by more or less musical mule skinners as they rode the front car down the drift to the unloading chutes.  Frank Knuckey has received acclaim for his rendition of the traditional mule skinner's song. 

(Sung to the old tune "My Sweetheart's A Man In The Moon"), Frank sang:

My Sweetheart's a mule in the mine...
I drive her without any line;

On the front car I sit, and tobacco I spit...
All over my sweetheart's behind!

Mules were kept underground their entire lives if they remained in good health, only being removed from their places of work in unusual circumstances.  One instance, recalled by Cecil Hooper, old time resident of the mine grounds with his family, was the occasion of a strike by miners around the year 1907.  The miners wanted an 8 hour day instead of the usual 10 hour shift and the strike was not going to be quickly resolved.  Cecil remembers as many as twenty mules, all with blinders on to shield them from the sunlight, milling about the surface grounds while being transferred to above ground corrals for the duration, assumably affording their eye muscles a chance to re-strengthen.

Placard at the Empire Mine

Transporting a mule underground was a memorable event for all concerned.  It wasn't until the 1930's that a mule was tranquilized for ease in transport.  Prior to that time, mules were immobilized by tying their feet and securing their bodies with canvas strapping, much like a sling.  The mode of transport varied according to the incline of the shaft the mule was to descend ( or ascend ).  If it wasn't very steep, a mule could simply be walked down.  Mules were often lowered down the vertical shaft a the Central North Star mine on a cable. The mule was totally encased in canvas with only its nose exposed for breathing.  At the Empire, with its 39 degree incline, mules were lifted onto a specially designed wide car, or sometimes an ordinary man car, tied down securely, and lowered to the level where a new mule was needed.  Mules were usually blindfolded for the episode because it calmed them.  It was always necessary to blindfold mules when they were removed from the mine, so their eyes could be allowed to gradually readjust to the bright light of day.

Mules are intelligent and have their own distinct personalities.  Most mules, Like Fannie, Jasper, Duke and Queen, chewed tobacco and drooled a lot.  They also were pampered with treats such as carrots and apples, usually from miners who hoped to be remembered favorably by that mule when next they met, instead of being kicked or bitten!  Queen had a dandy little routine, as recalled by Carl Carter who was rather uneasy around large animals anyway.  Queen's enormous bulk took up the majority of the mine passageway's five foot width.  She took obvious pleasure in leaning against the wall of the passerby's side, pinning him against the wall.  If the miner thought he'd outsmart Queen and shift neatly to the other side, Queen also deftly shifted her weight and leaned against the other side wall.  It usually took a bite of apple to pass by and even then, a swift kick might be the only thanks offered.

Mules performed efficiently underground from the 1880's when mines reached depths which necessitated more than man power.  They were gradually replaced by machinery.  Some mules retired to above ground duty.  Some remained until the Empire-Star Mines closed in 1956.  Florence Mann Keegan remembers watching as the last few old work mules were brought out of the Empire shaft when the vast complex shut down its operations.  ( They sold for $15. dollars a mule ).

Many a miner now recalls events which occurred as a part of his work in the mining days.  It seems that every miner has some kind of comment about the mules in the mines.  Those intelligent, sometimes cantankerous, always respected animals are certainly fondly remembered.  

George Buelah and "May West" ca. 1950 Celebrating the Calif. Centennial - May West was the last working mule in the local Mines. Battery powered trammers replaced the mules and May was retired to roam the streets of Alleghany for over twenty years.

for more information on the historic state park, click on the link...
Empire Mine, Grass Valley, CA

Also in the publication was an original poem written by Winifred Robins in 1982:

Mule Talk

His sire a burro,
His mother a mare,
A mule is a crossbreed
Who lives without heir.

Reactions are varied
Regarding a mule;
Where sympathy's lacking
They call him a fool.

But those who have seen
How the rugged beast works
Have all due respect
In spite of his quirks.

With traces of early
His ancestral roots
Lie in most ancient nations.

Called ass in the Bible,
A donkey's the same.
He's burro in Spanish,
But what's in a name?

From Asia and Africa
Donkeys have come;
With a trip into Egypt,
So bearing a Son.

All larger than burros,
Though equal in charms,
Fine horses served well
In war and on farms.

But the mule led the pack
With strong back and wide girth,
The Argonauts' choice
Since the Gold Rush's birth.

When coaxed by a miner
Over rugged terrain,
A mule carried his load
With frequent disdain.

The streams were traversed
By surefooted mules
While rivers were ravaged
Of gold from the hills.

When the Comstock Lode beckoned
To miners in flight,
Muleteers drove teams
That pulled wagons with might.

Pack trains were loaded,
Made ready to go,
In Marysville, Stockton,
And Sacramento.

With bells 'round her neck
The lead mule or horse
Would beckon a team
To keep it on course.

O'er steep mountain grades,
Across valleys and streams,
That mare led the way
To many men's dreams.

When miners dug tunnels
Their search to fulfill,
They took the mules with them
Inside of a hill.

They lowered the beasts
(Bagging mules was an art.)
There sentenced to draw
For life an ore cart.

With home a rough stable
Two thousand feet down;
Mules never came up
From that trap underground.

Poor Fanny was there
And Jasper the mule,
Who chewed plug tobacco;
He made it a rule.

With Death Valley the site
and Ron Reagan emcee
The Twenty Mule Team
Had a fame guaranty.

But those days are over.
Their condition improves;
Mule shows and fast races
Make the sports news.

With saddle and pack
They exhibit rare skills,
Just racing with barrels,
Loud braying, and drills.

Clubs and societies
For Donkeys and Mules
Encourage fine style 
 With modern show rules.

With racetracks so favored,
The sport of a king,
Pari-mutuel with mules
Becomes the in thing.

While back at the ranch
With fuel priced so high
A mule and a plow
Are again a good buy.

Long live the offspriing,
Colt of two breeds,
Whose strength and perception
Serve many men's needs.

The End.