Friday, August 29, 2014

Jerk line guides the Big Hitch

How do the mules safely transport the historic ore wagons?


    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.

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.

About Comments

Comments with content that seeks to incite or inflame may be removed.

Comments that are in ALL CAPS may be removed.

Comments that are off-topic or that include profanity or personal attacks, libelous or other inappropriate material may be removed from the site. Entries that are unsigned or contain signatures by someone other than the actual author may be removed. We will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or any other policies governing this site. Use of this system denotes full acceptance of these conditions. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

The comments below are from the readers of and in no way represent the views of Express Publishing, Inc.

You may flag individual comments. You may also report an inappropriate or offensive comment by clicking here.

Flagging Comments: Flagging a comment tells a site administrator that a comment is inappropriate. You can find the flag option by pointing the mouse over the comment and clicking the 'Flag' link.

Flagging a comment is only counted once per person, and you won't need to do it multiple times.

Proper Flagging Guidelines: Every site has a different commenting policy - be sure to review the policy for this site before flagging comments. In general these types of comments should be flagged:

  • Spam
  • Ones violating this site's commenting policy
  • Clearly unrelated
  • Personal attacks on others
Comments should not be flagged for:
  • Disagreeing with the content
  • Being in a dispute with the commenter

Popular Comment Threads

 Local Weather 
Search archives:

Copyright © 2022 Express Publishing Inc.   Terms of Use   Privacy Policy
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.