Learn and Explore
During the spring, summer, and fall, the National Park Service operates a replica packet boat, The Charles F. Mercer, at Great Falls, Maryland. Mules pull the boat providing an authentic canal experience. The mules live and work at Great Falls so meet them before or after a boat ride.
Mules and the Canal
Historically mules were the preferred animals to pull canal boats because they were cheaper to purchase than horses and were less prone to illness and injury. Mules had both longer life spans and longer work lives than horses and could pull canal boats for twenty years if they were taken care of properly. They had tougher skin than horses and were less likely to develop harness sores. Additionally, mules were more sure-footed than horses and less likely to trip and injure themselves pulling very heavy loads. Mules also adapted very well to life on a canal boat. They actually lived in the front cabin of the boat, which was a mule stable.
Most mules on the canal weighed about 1000 pounds, stood about 15 "Hands" tall (one "hand" equals four inches) at the point where the neck meets its body and cost about $125 each.
Mules were the preferred "engines" of the C&O Canal boat captains because mules are a perfect example of the hybrid principle: crossing two species can produce a third, often better, species more suited to certain conditions. Crossing a female horse (a mare) with a male donkey (a jack) produces a mule.
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.
Caring for Mules
As we may treat seeing-eye dogs today, so the boatmen treated their mules: not only as workers, but also as pets and companions. Every mule had a name such as Belle, Diamond or Kate. The mule drivers, usually the children, would develop affection for and an awareness of the mules’ idiosyncrasies.
Of course, the drivers always had to be attentive to the possibility of a mule kicking. As J. P. Mose recalls,
Not all mules, however, fared well on the canal. A few captains worked their mules too long, others whipped them to move their loaded, stationery 120-ton boat out of a lock as fast as possible; many mules became spavined, that is, they developed large, painful inflammations of leg bones and joints. And during the winter, when the captains stabled their mules at farms along the Potomac, not all the farmers in charge of the mules fed the animals properly. As Theodore Lizer recalls,
Today, however, the National Park Service ensures the year-round good health and safety of the mules that pull the Charles F. Mercer. The C&O Canal stable of mules have life much easier than the mules of yesteryear: our mules pull at most a twenty-eight ton boat, two hours per day, four days a week, whereas their predecessors would pull a 140-ton boat eight hours a day, seven days a week.
Last updated: November 6, 2018