This is the story about the mules of the mines. It is these small beasts of burden that are the true unsung heros of many of the gold discoveries that took place back in the day.
Whenever people of think about the gold prospector, they will visualize an old man with his trusty mule, all loaded down with supplies. This mule will carry the prospectors food, his tools, his tent and whatever else would be required for those long trips into the wilderness. The man and the mule became an iconic symbol of the old American west and it's mining history.
These animals were hardy animals to say the least. An average burro could pack around 200 pounds of gear and could walk 20 miles a day. This animal would eat very little and would comsume a lot less water than the average horse. They could also tolerate the heat of the midday sun in places like death valley California therefore they were the ideal companion for the prospector of old. Their small size also made them very agile in rough mountainous terrain. Once mines where built, these animals would be seen packing in the much needed supplies and packing out the sacks of ore. For some of these mines, narrow guage rails were put into the drifts and tunnels and burros would spend their days towing carts of ore to the outside of the mine.
Although the orignal burros were from Africa, it was the Spanish had domesticated these animals to work and brought them over to the Americas back during the 1500's. Later these burros would be bred to horses and the outcome would be what we have today as mules. These mules would become the real workers of the mines. The average mule could carry one third of it's body weight and walk 20 to 25 miles a day. A full grown mule could pull a cart that weighed 1000 pounds and so eventually the mines started to use what we know as mule trains.
Some of the most impressive sights back then were the 20 mule teams that crossed the deserts. These teams of mules would tow two large cargo wagons along with a third water wagon. Supplies would be loaded into these wagons and the water tank would be filled. Then the team would head off to some distant mine where it would unload its cargo and water, then reload the wagons with ore and then head back to town or the nearest rail road where the ore would be unloaded. These heavy freight wagons would sometimes travel as far as 160 miles to get to their destinations.
Some of the most impressive mule trains were known as the borax wagons of death valley. Each wagon was 16 feet long and had 6 foot high sides. It's front wheels were 5 feet in diameter and it's rear wheels were 7 feet. The steel rim on the wooden spoke was an inch think and 8 inches wide. When two cargo wagons and the water wagon were all loaded up, the total weight of the mule train would be as much as 73,000 pounds and up to 180 feet in length.
There would be a team of men that drove these trains across the deserts. Life wasn't easy for them either. Long hot days on a dusty trail riding on a wooden bench. In some cases the ride was so rough that the drivers would walk beside the wagon. It took a real teamster to manuvoure corners and hills. Each wagon would have a brake man who would apply brakes to each wagon going down hills to keep the wagons from having a runaway. These men would be gone for weeks at a time, having to cook their grub on an open fire and sleeping under the wagons on the desert floor.
Then as time went on, things started to become moderized with things like the gasoline engine. This changed everything for not only the miners but also the prospectors. Mules were traded for fuel or electric powered mining equipment. Roads were improved and trucks started hauling the goods and the ore but the man and his mule will never be forgotten.