rock island arsenal

rock island arsenal

rock island arsenal

by Mary Jefferson

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This particular packsaddle was designed to carry heavy and bulky loads.

One type packsaddle you're not likely to see any more is the aparejo (pronounced ah-pah-ray'ho). The aparejo originated in Mexico, and Mexican packers used it extensively in the 1850s in California packing freight from seaports to inland mining camps. There was a time in the 1880s when long strings of mules coming out of the Sierras were common sights; these trains were often outfitted with aparejo packs carrying wood to the charcoal kilns of the Cerro Gordo silver mine and to the northern towns for cooking and heating.

In years past, the aparejo was often used in the eastern Sierras by commercial pack outfits for extremely large loads and bulky objects, like lumber. During the 1940s, it was in use every summer in the Sierra Club High Trips. Two stoves were used by the club, each weighing over 200 pounds, and two mules with aparejo packs were used to move the stoves from camp to camp. In those days the High Trips had groups numbering as many as 200 guests plus 12 packers and a commissary crew. The load was considerable, especially because the equipment then was made of heavy metals and not of the lightweight alloys back-country equipment is now fashioned from. The packer who hauled the stoves had one string of five mules; two carried the stoves atop aparejos and the other three mules had regular sawbuck packs suitable for carrying kitchen equipment.

The sawbuck sits on top of the mule, but he aparejo blankets a pack animal's back and evenly distributes the load. The pad (which is the aparejo) is made of leather and stuffed with flat grass. It is wetted down before use, and as it dries, it molds to the back of a mule. Two boards are placed near the top of the pad, usually 4 x 4s in lengths equal to those of the pad. A cinch about ten to twelve inches wide is placed over the wood platform and is attached by latigoes to a similar cinch running under the mule's belly. An exceptionally wide breeching fits close under the animal's tail. After the pack is secured, the load is placed on the boards, and a tarp is thrown over the load and lashed down with an aparejo hitch.

Not too many outfitters are left who know how to pack an aparejo. Two men from Owens Valley who packed them in the eastern Sierra were Fred Moore and Tommy Jefferson. Every year Tommy would single out two green commissary boys to help him load the stoves in camp. He would instruct them that they had to be careful not to drop their end which was the fir box and made of cast iron. Tommy would take the oven end, alone, and they would lift together. The boys' end weighed about 158 pounds and Tommy's end weighed only about 60 pounds it'd usually take about two weeks for those boys to finally catch on.

Along with packing the stoves each summer, Tommy and Fred packed other individually heavy items. The first time I met both of them was in September 1953. We all rode up the Mt. Whitney trail from Whitney Portal on the eastern slope of the Sierras. We rode to about the 13,000­foot level of the pass to pick up parts of an air compressor left by the trail crew. The drive shaft went on one mule, a huge air cylinder on another, and various other parts we loaded on the remaining three mules. The heaviest load was about 450 pounds.

One mule lay down on the trail and refused to get up; the load was unpacked, and after he was on his feet, the load was repacked. We continued to the pack station where the critter pulled the same routine again.

Equipment wasn't the only load Tommy and Fred and their mules packed. Before helicopters were able to fly at high elevations, injured or ill persons were put into wire stretchers and placed on top of an aparejo for a ride to the nearest first aid. Rescues of this kind were made at least once a summer.

In 1972, after eight years of owning and operating Mt. Whitney Pack Trains, Tommy sold the outfit and the aparejo packs. To my knowledge, they aren't used any more; a part of the old west has died.

By Mary Jefferson.
October 1978
The Western Horseman


Fred Moore uses an aparejo to haul mining equipment; the aparejo was used for handling bulky, heavy items.


Fred Moore (left) and Tommy Jefferson (center) ready a mule for a trip into the Panamint Mountains.

 More on the Aparejo

The Aparejo (or pack-saddle, if it can be so styled), is a large pad, consisting of a leathern case stuffed with hay, which covers the back of the mule and extends half way down on both sides. This is secured with a wide seagrass bandage, with which the poor brute is so tightly laced as to reduce the middle of its body to half its natural size. During the operation of lacing, the corseted quadruped stands trembling in perfect agony, not an inapt emblem of some fashionable exquisites who are to be met with lounging on tip-toe, in all the principal thoroughfares of large cities.

The muleteers contend that a tightly laced beast, will travel, or at least support burdens with greater ease; and though they carry this to an extreme, still we can hardly doubt that a reasonable tension supports and braces the muscles. It is necessary too for the aparejo to be firmly bound on to prevent its slipping and chafing the mule's back; indeed, with all these precautions, the back, withers and sides of the poor brute are often horribly mangled - so much so that I have seen the rib-bones bare, from day to day, while carrying a usual load of three hundred pounds! The aparejo is also furnished with a huge crupper, which often lacerates the tail most shockingly. It is this packing that leaves most of the lasting cicatrices and marks common upon Mexican mules.


Packing a machine gun.

Packing wheels.

Packing Artillery
The Field Artillery Journal - 1928

Horse Packing
by Charles Johnston Post

Trooper with his mule.


Packing a gun barrel.

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This page was last updated on 18 June 2015