Electric Towing Locomotive GE Panama Canal Mule

Save The Mule!

GE Towing Locomotive Description

The 48-mile long Panama Canal opened in 1914. One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, the Canal with its system of locks greatly reduced the time for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As a safety feature, ships were guided though the lock chambers by electric locomotives known as mules (named after the pack animals traditionally used in Panama). Mules are used for side-to-side and braking control in the locks. Forward motion into and through the locks is provided by the ship’s engines.

  • Nickname: Panama Canal Mule
  • Manufacturer: General Electric
  • Production era: 1914-1915
  • 40 were produced, only three still exist
  • Power: Electric motor
  • Dual electrical and mechanical controls permitting operation from either end.
  • Speed: Maximum 5 mph, could operate at 1 mph when towing larger ships
  • Mules were operated on rails parallel to the canal, with one or more on each side to control and center the movement of the ocean-going vessels.

Panama Mule No. 686 Needs Your Help!

In memory of Dorn Thomas and to honor his work to save Mule 686 and bring it to Roanoke, the Museum and his family and friends are raising funds to provide Panama Canal Towing Locomotive No. 686 a much-needed new paint job, eliminating built-up rust and corrosion and restoring it to pristine condition for future generations, to continue to honor “the Men and Women that participated in the construction and operation of the Panama Canal.”

Your donation is tax-deductible, donate here… or mail your check to: 

Virginia Museum of Transportation
303 Norfolk Ave. SW
Roanoke, VA  24016

Please mark your checks for the “Save The Mule Fund.”

For more information, contact Jed Thomas 804-595-1031

About # 686

  • Manufactured in 1914, an original Panama Canal mule
  • Was a "Pacific Locks Mule" which operated at the west end of the canal. Atlantic mules, by comparison, differed slightly in appearance.
  • Retired in 1964.
  • The governor of the Panama Canal donated it to a proposed "American Museum of Electricity" in Schenectady.
  • Brought to the Museum in 1974, where it was restored and painted by Roanoke Chapter NRHS members.
  • Donated to the Museum by the General Electric Co. in concert with the Roanoke Chapter of the NRHS.

Class Specifications

  • Length: 32 ft
  • Height:
  • Width: 8 ft
  • Weight: 42 tons
  • Towing capacity: 25,000 lbs
  • Electric motor: 220 volt, 25 cycle

In Memory Of J.E. Dorn Thomas

Born in Colon, Thomas lived his first 24 years in the Canal Zone. Following high school, he earned his Journeyman Electrician license working for the Panama Canal Company, playing football on the side for the Working Boys. He then served two years of active duty in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in the Canal Zone. He "went stateside" in 1955 to enroll at Georgia Tech, graduating with a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering degree in 1958. Thomas worked for 32 years for General Electric in engineering and management positions in Roanoke, Richmond, and Charlottesville, VA, retiring in 1990.

Thomas never strayed too far from his Canal Zone roots. On a company business trip in 1972, he came upon Panama Canal Towing Locomotive No. 686 – one of the original 40 “Mules” built by General Electric in 1914. It had been abandoned and needed a home. Over the course of the next two years, Thomas raised the funds to transport No. 686 to a permanent home at the Virginia Museum of Transportation, located in Roanoke, VA. When its restoration was completed in 1974, No. 686 was dedicated “To the Men and Women that participated in the construction and operation of the Panama Canal.”

Thomas was one of the founders of the Panama Canal Museum and served on its Board of Directors until his death.  As part of his volunteer efforts on behalf of the Museum, Thomas initiated and administered the Museum’s Roosevelt Medal Recognition Certificate Program. He was married Dolores McCaffrey for 56 years, and together they raised three children. 

Thomas passed away on July 1, 2014 at the age of 83, in Richmond, VA.

Panama Canal Mule Towing Locomotive