On a recent visit to their quarters - aka stables - at the Hugh Moore Park’s National Canal Museum, Hank and George seemed mostly impassive. One did, however, offer a neigh and a grunt now and then, which is pretty darn good for a mule.
Unlike “Mr. Ed,” that talking horse of early 1960s sit-com fame, these two are non-verbal. But perhaps after a year off, they were secretly ready to get “back in harness” with the May 8 reopening of the popular rides on the Josiah White II canal boat on the towpath.
The NCM provided some interesting information about the pair.
Hank is 16 and George 13. They joined the museum staff in January 2006 after an auction in Lancaster. Although they look alike, they are not brothers. George hails from Texas. Hank’s home state is Missouri. Being rural, if he could talk Hank would probably pronounce it Missouria. They are known as Percheron mules after a breed of draft horses that originated in France.
Pulling a canal boat is not something that came naturally to the mules. They had to learn to walk in tandem one behind the other and learn to get the boat moving by leaning on the towline and taking gradual steps. That way they learn who is the leader in the team, and who is the follower.
Apparently the two have become attached to each other. One gets worried when he cannot see the other. Healthy and well cared for they can live for 15 to 18 years. Recently the NCM decided that it was safe enough, while following social distancing guidelines, to resume the rides.
Although they might be looked down on by billionaire owners of Kentucky Derby winning thoroughbreds, Hank and George have a heritage that should not be whinnied at. For several millennia, they were both the beasts of burden and favorite mode of travel of kings and prelates.
At the NCM, they are recognized as the power source that made the Lehigh and Delaware Canals possible. Without them, the transportation revolution that swept the nation in the first half of the 19th century would not have happened. It was the canal-boat-pulling mules that led the way for the railroad locomotive.
Some of the Lehigh Valley’s great men began their careers handling mules. Bethlehem’s Robert Sayre, later co-founder of the Lehigh Valley Railroad and Bethlehem Iron later Steel Company, began his work life as a boy tending to the mules for the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company.
Henry Leh, later a founder of one of Allentown’s earliest department stores, was a canal boy, leading mules, switch in hand along the Lehigh Canal. When he opened his first store in 1850, Leh’s merchandise arrived via the mule-pulled canal boats.
Asa Packer, later of Lehigh Valley Railroad and Lehigh University fame, was the captain of more than one canal boat in his day. Later sources say Packer started the railroad because unlike canals they did not freeze up in winters.
But long before Hank and George came along, the mule had an extensive heritage. According to the American Mule Museum, devoted to all-things mule, the first mules were developed out of breeding of the wild ass, aka the donkey, and the horse. It began in the northern and northwestern parts of what is today Turkey.
Before 3,000 B.C., Egypt’s rulers were using them as pack animals to and from the turquoise mines. They were also used to pull carts. There is at least one case of a mule pulling a chariot.
Horse racing may be called the sport of kings, but mules had a higher status for royal travel. When one king in ancient Mesopotamia, now Iraq, attempted to ride a horse into a town, he was warned he would lose status if he did so. “Please…use a mule instead of a common horse,” he was reprimanded by advisors.
In his poem, the Iliad, Homer, the Greek poet, includes mules in the army that was said to have sailed against Troy. And when he crossed the Alps in his war against the Romans in 216 B.C., Hannibal along with his famous elephants had mules to do the heavy lifting.
While plotting strategy, he probably preferred riding a mule to trying to get around rough terrain on an elephant. The Romans also used them for their strength and endurance. In the Middle Ages, gentlemen and clergy, like high-ranking bishops and cardinals, traveled by mule.
In 1495, Columbus brought donkeys and horses to the New World that were later used to breed mules. Later they were bred in Mexico and Cuba. They were used as pack animals to bring the New World’s gold and silver to Spain.
George Washington played a major role in the breeding of mules in the U.S. Washington wrote to the King of Spain for a donkey that could breed a higher stronger type of mule. The king obliged by sending an Andalusian male donkey named Royal Gift.
“That “royal gift” from the Spanish king,” notes the American Mule Museum ”is today credited with the development of the American Mule which began a dynasty that reshaped the very landscape of the country.” Washington also received a similar gift, a male named Knight Malta. Supposedly Washington’s efforts in mule breeding revolutionized Southern agriculture.
When the Erie Canal across New York State opened in the early 19th century, it was apparently a combination of mule and canal power that pulled the barges on the canal. So, it must have seemed natural that other canals followed suit.
By the time of the 1820s and 30s when the Lehigh Canal opened, the builder Josiah White must have decided it only made sense. The canal was soon carrying huge loads of anthracite coal from Mauch Chunk--now Jim Thorpe--to Philadelphia.
A two-male mule team on the canal back then pulled up to 20 tons for 18 hours a day, six days a week. They travelled up to 35 miles a day with rest breaks at the canal locks while boats were being loaded and unloaded. Rest came at night at one of the many stables along the way.
But in 1855, the Lehigh Valley Railroad was built and the coal tonnage the canal carried dropped dramatically. Mules however continued to pull canal boats. In the 1880s, a fanciful canal boat vacation by wealthy New York artists headed by Louis Comfort Tiffany of stained-glass fame was had on the Delaware and Lehigh Canal. It was pulled by mules Molly and Polly.
Many of the towns and businesses along the canal’s right-of-way continued to depend on mule-powered canal boats well into the 20th century. A brief attempt was made around 1909-1912 to create an electronic “mule” to replace the old-fashioned kind. But it proved less than successful and ended up tearing apart the towpath.
The Lehigh Canal finally was closed in 1942. Today, if you want to get a feel for its past, go to the National Canal Museum at Hugh Moore Park and take a ride with Hank and George. But don’t expect them to talk.