The mule I drove was called Old Red

Posted by | December 10, 2015

You hear young folk singers today sing happy work songs about mule drivers and mule-skinners. I sometimes wonder if any of them know what driving a mule is really like, and if they’d still sing so merrily if they knew.

My first job was carrying water on the Interstate Railroad grade at Josephine, about a half-mile from our old home near Norton. That was my introduction to mule driving. It wasn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds in the songs.

Underground coal cars, at that time, were pulled by mules. The driver who carried the largest whip and who used it the most forcefully was regarded as the best driver. Drivers generally were jealous of each other and the ones I knew considered themselves a cut above the miners who dug for coal.

The animals worked every day, usually about twelve hours. They had a terrible, repulsive odor about them. Their necks and shoulders seemed always to be raw around their collars, and their hind quarters bore great welts and scars from blows administered with the whip or the “butt stick.”

miners and a mule, between 1918-30Mules are noted for their stubbornness, but few were as stubborn (and none as cruel) as the men who drove them. If a man wasn’t brutal when he started the job, he soon learned to be. There may have been exceptions, but I can’t recall any.
The whip wielded by a mule driver was about ten feet in over-all length. It was made of plaited leather, tapered from a maximum diameter of two-and-a-half to three inches in the middle down to about one inch on the ends. On the “cracker” end of the whip was a piece of rawhide about three-quarters of an inch wide and fourteen inches long; and on the end of that, a piece of twisted seagrass about the thickness of a lead pencil and twelve inches in length.

Mule drivers prided themselves on their skill and power with their whips. They could tear a man (or a mule) to pieces with one. The one distinguishing characteristic common to all mule drivers was a “red-eyed” appearance. This was not from drinking (though it might have very well been in most cases), but from the effects of having mud slung into their eyes by their mule’s hooves.

I came to learn quite a bit about mules, and how to care for them and work them. In 1911, at the age of thirteen, I became a mule driver.

My career as a mule driver lasted just a few months. It was hard, cruel, dangerous work. In those days, we used the drift mouth method of mining coal. It was also called deep mining. A network of tunnels followed veins of coal deep into a mountainside, sometimes for several miles.

The mule I drove was called Old Red. He was a fine, strong animal. I thought of Old Red as my partner in the mining business, rather than a beast of burden. And I think he appreciated it. In fact, I’m sure he did. He rarely, if ever balked on me. I frequently led Old Red down into the shallow water of Powell’s River beneath the Josephine Bridge and scrubbed him down with strong lye soap– a practice which the veteran drivers viewed with scorn. But they couldn’t deny that Old Red was the best-looking, best-smelling mule in the community.

The hours I worked were roughly 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. I had to spend an hour each morning feeding, currying, and harnessing my mule, and two hours in the evening unharnessing, rubbing down, and feeding him.

One morning I was hauling “Bowser” Farmer and three other miners into the mine on my car. As we approached their work area, I began to slue the car over the parting to the left, off the main line. In less time than it takes to tell it, a sudden rock fall buried Old Red and narrowly missed killing us all. The poor mule, my pet and my proud companion, never knew what hit him. It was probably the “closest call” I ever had in a coal mine–and a terrifying experience for a thirteen-year-old.

Only about eight feet separated a mule from his car, and I was sitting out on the bumper when that hundred tons of rock crushed Old Red. One second he was there, responding to my commands–and then suddenly, he was buried and gone forever, in less time than it takes to scream.

There was nothing to do but cut the traces, drop back a few feet, and cut a new entry. Another mule was hitched to my car. Everything was back to normal. We had to get that coal.

If I wasn’t already a man, I became one that day.

The Life and Times of a Mountaineer Game Warden, by Dave O’Neill
(1898-1974, b. Norton VA), online at

One Response

  • Stories like these, while sad when it involves the animals, are a great lesson in how far we have come and just how difficult it was to do labor like that. Good story Dave!

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