Electric Towing Locomotive GE Panama Canal 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.

The Panama Canal Towing Locomotive #686 was one of a fleet of 40 built by General Electric in Schenectady, New York between 1914.and 1915. Its operators referred to it as a “lock mule” or “mule”. At one time, more than 100 of these mules operated at Gatun, Pedro Miguel, and Miraflores lock stations.

A total of forty GE mules were produced, only five still exist

  • Nickname: Panama Canal Mule
  • Manufacturer: General Electric
  • Production era: 1914-1915
  • 40 were produced, only five 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.

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. (The Museum was never developed)
  • Brought to the Museum in 1974, where it was restored and painted by National Railway Historical Society (NRHS) members.
  • Donated to the Museum by the General Electric Co. in concert with 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

Second Restoration: 2019

Through the efforts of the Thomas family, the “Mule” is getting a second restoration. (see story below). The work is being coordinated and done, again, by members of the Roanoke Chapter, of the National Railway Historical Society. The old paint has been sand-blasted, a new grey primer and paint have been applied, and new wood bumpers are being supplied by North-Fork Lumber from Goshen, VA. A “before” picture is at right. Finished picture soon available.

  • In Memory Of J.E. Dorn Thomas

Panama Mule No. 686 Dedicated to Dorn Thomas

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 raised over $10,000  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.”

From Panama to Schenectady NY. to permanent home in Roanoke, VA. The mission of Dorm Thomas. Read GE Reporter September 1974. Click to Read

J.E. Dorn Thomas: Born in Colon, the capital of Panama’s Colón Province 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 three 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.

A MUST READ Dedication Address for Pananama Mule # 686 by J.E. Dorn May 24 1975 

Additional Links:

History & Picture of Mule #686 with Dorn Thomas



Then & Now: http://www.canalmuseum.com/100years/100yearspanamacanal-22.htm


In the fall of 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Canal Zone and, in a speech at the close of his visit to Cristobal, he said: “I shall see if it is not possible to provide for some little memorial, some mark, some badge, which will always distinguish the man who for a certain space of time has done his work well on this Isthmus.” The Roosevelt Medal was given to all citizens of the United States who rendered two years satisfactory service or more on the Isthmus. http://www.czbrats.com/Builders/roosemedals.htm



Panama Canal Mule Full Document