Digest>Archives> February 2003

Old Jack the Lighthouse Mule

A Story for Kids of All Ages

By Elinor DeWire


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Southeast Farallon Lighthouse sits on an island far at sea, 23 miles from San Francisco, California. The reason a lighthouse is needed on this lonely cleft of rock is to guide ships past a group of islands called the Farallones that sit like sentries off the Golden Gate. Their name means “the brothers” in Spanish. It’s a good name, since these rugged islands look similar and resemble a family of swimmers popping up their heads at sea. Like big brothers, they guard the coast.

When the lighthouse was under construction in 1855, by the firm of Gibbons & Kelly of Baltimore, workers had a hard time hauling building materials up the cliffs to where the lighthouse would shine from the highest point, a peak called Sugarloaf 348 feet above the ocean. The cliffs were very steep and rocky, wind and waves constantly scoured them, fogs descended like heavy smoke, and seabirds angrily defended their nests from the intruding workers.

Stone for the tower was quarried on the island. Lumber, bricks, and parts for the lighthouse came on a ship called the Oriole. Since there was no safe place for a dock, men and building materials were lightered ashore from the Oriole and landed using a hoist. In order to get up Sugarloaf, workers built a switchback trail that zigzagged to the top. At first the men tried hauling everything up the trail themselves, but it was dangerous, backbreaking work. They sent word back to San Francisco for help.

Soon, another ship arrived with the answer to their problem. As it dropped anchor some distance offshore the workers heard the loud braying and hee-hawing of a mule. His name was Jack, and he would help with the hauling.

Getting Jack off the ship was the first task. Someone suggested letting him swim ashore, but the captain worried Jack might try to swim back to San Francisco instead. So, Jack was placed in a canvas harness, lifted off the ship’s deck with a hoist, and swung over the ocean onto the lighter. Workers held and consoled him while the lighter moved slowly shoreward. Then Jack was lifted off the lighter by another hoist and gently placed on the island. All the while, he brayed and hee-hawed with fright. He was very glad when his hooves touched solid ground.

Jack quickly learned to haul a heavy pack load from the landing site to the top of Sugarloaf. From dawn until dusk, he plodded slowly up and down the trail. Sometimes, he was hitched to a windlass to lift heavy equipment or move stones. In the evening he was well rewarded for his work. There was a little grass on the island and plenty of hay in the lean-to by the landing, and there was space to run and stretch his stiff legs after a long day of work.

Day by day, the lighthouse grew taller and the brick keeper’s quarters rose at the base of the island. When the huge first-order lens arrived, it was discovered the tower was too small to hold it. Someone had made a big mistake in the plans for the lighthouse. Workers, with the help of Jack, tore it down and rebuilt a larger version, 41 feet high. The lens then fit perfectly. Finally, after years of work, the station was finished. The lightkeeper opened the tower and lit the beacon for the first time on January 1, 1856.

It was decided that Jack should remain on the island to help the lightkeeper and his assistant when things needed to be hauled to their quarters or up to the lighthouse. Jack could bring food, water, and whatever else the men needed. He also could haul oil for the lighthouse lamps. A little barn was built for Jack, and he spent most of his days roaming the rocky island and nibbling the sparse, salty grass covering its hills. When the tender whistled sounded in the distance, the keepers fetched him from his rocky pasture and harnessed him for work. Soon, Jack learned what the whistle meant and led the keepers on a merry chase before being caught and put to work.

A few years later, the head keeper brought his wife and daughter to the island. The little girl, who called herself “The Girl of the Farallons,” dearly loved Jack. Her father allowed her to ride him up and down the switchback trail. Her mother gave her old carrots, potatoes, and dried apples to feed him as treats. She dressed Jack in hats and invited him to tea parties where his cup was filled with sugar. He ate cookies too, for he loved anything sweet.

Not long afterwards, the assistant keeper also brought his family to the island, and there were more children. Jack now fulfilled a dual role at the lighthouse as both pack mule and pet.

When the tender came with supplies and coal, it was the children who ran to fetch Jack so he could be harnessed for work. Jack still preferred grazing to hauling supplies up the switchback trail. He continued to evade work by running to the other side of the island and attempting to hide, but not with the same determination as when the keepers chased him. He resisted only a short time before allowing the children to catch him and lead him back to the dock. They always rewarded him with tasty treats.

Jack lived on Southeast Farallon Island for many years and saw a number of families come and go at the lighthouse. Children grew up and left, and others were born. Keepers came and went, and night after night the lighthouse flashed a warning to ships. In all those years, Jack continued to haul supplies and oil for the lighthouse families and to be a good pet for the children. His fame grew outside the island. Lighthouse Service personnel in San Francisco talked of his devotion and told of his comical antics. Once, he was even mentioned in a newspaper article about the light station.

In 1873, when Jack was about twenty years old, it was decided he should retire. By this time, everyone was calling him Old Jack, because he was the oldest mule still at work in the Lighthouse Service. He had served at Farallon Lighthouse eighteen years - longer than any human keeper. A fine spray of white whiskers now grew from his chin, and his back was a little bent from years of hard work. He walked slower too, for somehow he knew work would get done no matter how fast or slow he walked.

One day the lighthouse tender came to Southeast Farallon, and Old Jack led the children on a chase, as usual. He allowed them to catch him, of course, but this time something new happened. Old Jack was led down to the dock and placed in the canvas harness. He brayed and hee-hawed as he was lifted off the dock, swung over the water, and softly lowered onto the ship’s deck.

There, a younger pack animal stood, a sweet-faced donkey named Jerry. He had a straight back and no white whiskers. Jack and Jerry eyed each other for a moment and sniffed noses, not quite sure what to make of their situation. The harness was switched, and the younger donkey was lifted off the ship and onto the island, then saddled with a pack.

The lighthouse family waved good-bye to Old Jack as the ship pulled away from the dock. Some of them were crying. But their tears seemed like the happy kind. Old Jack pricked his ears in puzzlement and sniffed the air. He was confused. Why was a donkey taking his place, and where was he going?

He sailed for hours, feeling a bit sick from the rolling of the ship. The tender passed through a broad opening into a bay and came to a large city with busy docks and lots of noise. The ship berthed, and men began unloading it. This time a wooden ramp was placed against the ship, and Old Jack was led off with the rest of the cargo, carefully stepping down the ramp from ship to shore to where an old man was waiting on the dock with a cart.

The man had a kind face, rippled with many creases by a broad smile. He had white whiskers and a bent back too, just like Old Jack. He patted Old Jack’s head and gave him an apple. Then he harnessed him to the cart and put a straw hat on the old mule’s head. For decoration, he wove some poppies into Jack’s mane and long tail. Some children scampered near and giggled at Old Jack’s straw hat and flowers. Jack leaned down and sniffed their hands. He loved children - the sweet smell of their hair, the soft spongy feel of their fingers on his nose, the lilting sound of their laugh.

“Now, you can come home with me and rest,” said the man. “You’ve worked hard for many years and have earned your retirement!”

The man climbed into the cart and shook the reins. Old Jack pulled the cart up a hill away from the children and the busy city docks, past houses and businesses, through quiet streets, and far into the country. Everything seemed so wide open and big, not at all like Southeast Farallon Island. But Old Jack decided he liked this new land. It seemed oddly familiar. Maybe he had been here before, long ago when he was young. But he couldn’t remember that far back. So many years had passed.

Soon, Old Jack and the man turned down a dusty lane, which ended at a little seaside farm. In the pasture was a fat pony, a few sheep with black faces and white wool, some chickens, and a cow lazily chewing and switching flies with her tail. A big friendly tabby cat sat on a fence post. The man petted the cat, then unhooked Old Jack from the cart and led him into the pasture.

“Welcome to your new home, old fella! Eat some grass and enjoy yourself,” the old man said. He gave Old Jack another pat on the head and removed the straw hat. “No more work for you.”

Jack stood perplexed for moment, not knowing what was expected of him. There was no long switchback trail, no harness to wear, no pack load to carry - just the field, the grass, the wildflowers and bees humming, and the other animals staring at him. He brayed softly, a small cry of bewilderment. The pony whinnied, tossed its head, and came to greet Old Jack. Their noses touched, and Old Jack felt a friendly nuzzle. The other animals followed, and after each one had smelled Old Jack and looked him over well, he was pronounced a valued member of the farm.

Soon, he was munching sweet grass and trotting happily about the pasture. Occasionally, he would lie down and roll, just because it felt good. Or, he would lean against the fence post and fall asleep with the big cat purring in his ear. For fun, he would scare the chickens with his loud brays. Best of all, he took long walks through the pasture with the pony, who had also worked for many years in a circus and was now retired. Life was good.

Old Jack lived out the rest of his years quietly. The old man’s grandchildren came to visit every so often. They would put on Old Jack’s straw hat and climb on his back for rides. They wove wildflowers into his mane and tail and paraded him about. And they never forgot to bring his favorite treat - a big juicy apple.

Years passed, and Old Jack grew slower and more bent of back. His face was nearly white now, and his eyes became milky. He couldn’t see so well anymore, or hear either. But his nose still worked. He could find his friend, the pony, by smell, and when the children came to visit they had to lead him about, since he could no longer see. But always, he could smell the tart apples they brought and the sweetness of their hands.

Sometimes, when the day was nearing its end and the wind came gently off the sea, Old Jack would lift his head and smell a salty tang wafting in over the grassy pasture. It seemed familiar, that smell. It was the odor of something from long ago. For a moment, he would cock his head sideways and bray softly, vaguely remembering-

An island far out in the waves, where children played and a trail zigzagged to the top, and a white tower perched on the lofty peak, casting its friendly golden beam over the tumbling gray waves.

Author’s Note - This story is “historical fiction.” Most of it is true, but some of the details have been fabricated to round out the story. Old Jack was, indeed, a real mule who helped in the construction of the Southeast Farallon Lighthouse and stayed on until 1873 to serve the lightkeepers. The photo shown was taken in 1870 during the keepership of Joseph McCumber, and, yes, that’s Old Jack in the picture, carrying his pack load! We know he was landed on the island in a canvas sling around 1854, hauled supplies up the switchback trail, and amused the children. He ran to the opposite end of the island to hide whenever the tender whistle blew and saw many families come and go over his 18 years of service. It’s unknown whether he died on the island or was retired to a mainland farm. I prefer to think he spent his last years enjoying a quiet, peaceful life far from drudgery, and if he did not earn such an end in real life, at least I’ve given it to him in this story. He is one of countless mules, horses, and donkeys that served at lighthouses around the nation. They received terse mentions in logbooks and government records, and made occasional appearances in photographs. But we know they were much-loved pets and important servants of the lights. None are remembered so fondly as those assigned to Southeast Farallon Lighthouse, one of the most isolated and difficult assignments in the nation. Jack was the first of several pack animals at this far-flung station. Most were brought to the island as young animals and served their remaining years on Southeast Farallon. They were more than livestock. We know of at least one, named Patty, that was buried in 1913 by the old East Landing after many dedicated years of service to the lightkeepers. A simple concrete slab, a tribute that suggests she was regarded with the same affection as her human counterparts, marks her grave. One lightkeeper, who is said to have sobbed inconsolably at Patty’s loss, wrote of her:

Mule Patty, always good,

Caused no trouble where she stood,

Always ready and seldom sick,

Died of old age without a kick.

This story appeared in the February 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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