Friday, September 2, 2011

Big Hitch to be pulled by historic jerk line

Specially trained mules guide historic ore wagons down parade route

Express Staff Writer

The Big Hitch makes its way through Ketchum, pulled by a team of well-trained mules. Photo by Mountain Express

The prized showpiece of Ketchum's Wagon Days Parade, the Big Hitch, is one of the nation's most authentic examples of the mule-drawn wagon trains that once carried ore from central Idaho mines.

As in all the Wagon Days parades since 2001, the Big Hitch in this year's parade will feature a team of specially trained pack mules directed by an artist of sorts, the muleskinner.

In the 1880s, during the heyday of Ketchum's mining era, muleskinners had only two means of control over the powerful stock: their voices and the jerk line, a rein that ran up to 200 feet from the front of the team to the rear.

During the Wagon Days parade, muleskinner Bobby Tanner will once again revive the dying art of using an authentic jerk line to guide a team of up to 20 mules—pulling a cargo of six, 3-ton ore wagons—through the streets of Ketchum and Sun Valley.

A resident of Bishop, Calif., Tanner in 2001 returned the employment of the jerk-line-driven mule team to Wagon Days after a three-decade hiatus. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s, draft horses drew the Big Hitch through Ketchum, but typically lacked the power and stamina to complete the entire parade course.

Jim Jaquet, Ketchum city administrator from 1977 to 2002, said city officials eventually came to feel strongly that display of the ore wagons during the parade should mirror history as closely as possible. So, Tanner and his mules were brought in.

How does it work?

Operation of the jerk line truly is an art. The line, which is attached to each member of the team, is manipulated by a number of distinct whips and jerks. The movements effectively command the mules—which are trained to respond to the subtleties of the jerks—to maintain a specific course.

The muleskinner operates the jerk line from atop the "near side wheeler," the mule closest to the left wheel of the lead wagon. Wheelers, the stout mules positioned closest to the wagons, were historically the only animals in the outfit that were rigged to help brake the wagons on downhill slopes.

In front of the wheelers are mules called "pointers." In addition to helping with pulling, their function is to guide the wagons. They must be trained to step over the train's haul chain to make sharp turns.

Ahead of the pointers are the "sixes," "eights" and "tens." The six mules span the middle of the jerk line. Taking directions from the muleskinner, they shift speeds or pull in different directions to help steer the wagons.


In front of the sixes, eights and tens are the "swingers," which are essentially veteran pointers. Their advanced training gives them the ability to step over the haul chain and make adjustments without signals from the muleskinner. They were harnessed behind the leaders.

The sixes, eights, tens and swingers were loose, without head or chest harnesses. The lead team, in front of the swingers, always kept the center chain taut—and usually straight.

Going around a curve in the road, the taut chain must bend. To effectively bend the chain is the responsibility of every mule between the pointers and the leaders.

The immense complexity of operating a jerk line, combined with evolutions in the mining industry, eventually left the muleskinners as a forgotten group. Tanner, however, has revived the lost art of operating a jerk line, after he used historic documents to teach himself how to train mules and drive a wagon train.

Wagons were key to commerce

Ore-wagon trains were once an essential link between civilization and the mining camps that dotted central Idaho before the turn of the 20th century.

One such train operation run by Ketchum entrepreneur Horace Lewis, the Ketchum Fast Freight Line, kept goods—from pick axes to pianos to cloth and whisky—moving into the backcountry. After delivery, the wagons would return with ores ladled from Idaho's mountains.

Trail Creek Road, which is a modern-day path between the Pioneer and Boulder mountains, was built by Lewis for his wagon train operation. The original Trail Creek Road was steep and dangerous, inclining at 12 percent.

One of the major routes for the ore wagons was a 160-mile loop leaving Ketchum, going up Trail Creek and heading to mining camps in Clayton, Challis, Bayhorse and Bonanza in the Big Lost and Salmon river valleys. Trips that now take a few hours in automobiles often took ore wagons in excess of two weeks.

At the height of the mining activity in the Wood River, Big Lost and Salmon river valleys in the 1880s and 1890s, the Lewis Fast Freight Lines owned 700 mules and 30 wagons. The men and the mules hauled 700,000 pounds of ore to the Philadelphia Smelter in Ketchum in a single year.

Parade and other Wagon Days events

The Wagon Days Big Hitch Parade starts at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 3, in Ketchum. For a calendar of all events scheduled for Wagon Days and Labor Day weekend, see Section A of this newspaper or refer to the Idaho Mountain Express special section for Wagon Days. The special section can be found in the Wednesday, Aug. 31, edition of the newspaper or online at

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