By Lew Holloway

Many years ago, around 1945, my grandfather took me to watch the activity at the Morrison Mine, located east of Erie. The mine authorities were bringing up mules from the underground stables. The mules had been maintained underground throughout their lives. It was the end of an era. Mules had been replaced by powerful machinery. The new machines had become more powerful but less reliable than the respected mules. The miners always had names for their mule’s companions who worked at their side. There was a respectful relationship between the miner and the animal. One finds statues and monuments dedicated to the mine mule throughout the country.

The mules spent their lives in the depths of the earth. The mules were kept healthy. The underground stables were kept clean, with a stableman (usually a kid) in charge of their well-being: the subterranean corral stored hay, water, and harness with all essential equipment. Veterinarians attended the mules whenever necessary. The health of the mules was crucial to the mining operation. Often, mules were treated better than the coal miner. 

There was a downside to the life of a coal mine mule. The mules spent their lives underground, never brought up to the surface. The mules were essentially blind because they were very young and had been taken underground as foals. (The mines had very dim lighting if any at all. Kerosene lamps in the common more open areas.) The mule’s eyes adapted to low, shadowy lighting. Their life was without intense sunshine.

The Morrison mine was the last commercial coal mining operation in the northern Colorado coalfield area to use mules. After researching mules in coal mining, I found no corporate-owned mines using mules after the late 1940s.


(Pictures are only to help understand, a free online image)



I still remember the day as if it were yesterday. I can picture the area around the tipple with several men standing at the elevator gate; a short distance away was a large open-bed truck. I’m sure my grandfather was unaware of the horrid sight and experience about to unfold before his grandchild.

At first, I did not notice the man with a rifle standing near the shaft. As the elevator ascended and the bright sunlight entered the eyes of the mule, it panicked. While still in the cage, there was a terrible loud bray, almost a scream. The mule kicked and jumped up and down. The man with the rifle approached the mule and shot it in the head. The mule dropped to the ground; blood was flowing out. They next put chains around the rear legs and drug it with a tractor up into the open truck bed. 

After the first terrifying experience, they changed the method of operation. The next mule that came up the elevator shaft had been blindfolded; a harness-looking canvas had been placed around the mule’s head. The only thing visible were two ears and the snout. The mule soon became resistant, leading the truck a short distance away. A shot rang out; the mule dropped to the ground and loaded onto the truck.

Grandfather decided we had seen enough. We returned to the car; he said, “Don’t tell your grandma what you just saw.”

(I attempted to research this mule extermination experience several times without success. I explored the incident, hoping to find more information. The Colorado Humane Society had not recorded the incident.)

Hand drawn map of Morrison Mine in Erie, CO by Lew Holloway