The 20-mule teams are still remembered today.
In 1881 hardscrabble prospector Aaron Winters, after making camp at Furnace Creek in California’s Death Valley, gathered up some white crystals from the bed of a dried-up lake, placed them in a saucer, added sulfuric acid and alcohol as he had been taught, and touched the mix with an open flame. “She burns green, Rosie!” he bellowed to his long-suffering wife. “We’re rich, by God!”
And with that, the California borax-mining boom began. It made some men rich (including a leader of the San Francisco vigilantes), gave birth to a long-running radio and television show (featuring, among others, a man who would become president) and left the country with the persisting image of 20-mule team wagons trudging across the desert.
The term “borax” covers a number of boron compounds easily dissolved in water and used in detergents, cosmetics and enamel glazes, among numerous other products. It occurs naturally in deposits produced by the repeated evaporation of seasonal lakes. Borax had been known since ancient times. The Egyptians used it in mummification, and Marco Polo reportedly brought some back from his Far East travels in the 13th century. In the late 1800s boron compounds were a household staple, used in medicines, food additives and household cleaners.
Winters had been lucky. In 1881 he and Rosie had given a prospector named Henry Spiller a night’s lodging in their Ash Meadows dugout, described by one visitor as “close against the hill, one side half-hewn out of rock…with a tule-thatched roof.” In the course of that evening Spiller mentioned borax and showed the Winters a “cotton ball,” a natural ore containing the borate minerals ulexite and proberite. Winters recalled having seen the same crystals at Furnace Creek, and when Spiller left, he traveled there with Rosie to test them as Spiller had demonstrated.
After staking his claim, Winters quietly sent samples to William T. Coleman & Co. in San Francisco. A Coleman representative soon arrived in Death Valley, and Winters signed over his title and water rights to the land for $22,000. Unfortunately for Coleman, however, the discovery lay amid one of the most inaccessible places on earth. Called “ground afire” by local Shoshones, Death Valley is, at 282 feet below sea level, the lowest spot in North America, a place where ground temperatures could—and do— reach well above 100 degrees. On July 10, 1913, a weather station at Furnace Creek recorded a temperature of 134 degrees, just 2 degrees short of the world record.
Not an unusual place to find borax. “Borates are invariably found in desolate, distant places, nearly always in a man-killing climate,” explained Dr. Carl Randolph, a chemist and onetime president of U.S. Borax.
Coleman himself was born in Kentucky in 1824 and moved to California in 1849, where, like other successful entrepreneurs, he realized he could make out better selling items to the region’s many prospectors and miners than he could prospecting himself. He formed William T. Coleman & Co. as a general merchandise business and became involved in his new community, replacing Sam Brannan in 1851 as leader of the city’s newly founded Committee of Vigilance. Author Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived briefly in California, called Coleman the “Lion of the Vigilantes.”
In early 1883 Coleman organized the Harmony Borax Works, which comprised two dissolving tanks, eight settling tanks and 57 crystallizing tanks on the edge of the marsh where Winters had found his crystals. Coleman hired Chinese laborers at $1.50 a day to scrape cotton ball deposits from the ancient lakebed. The mill’s 40 workers gathered pieces up to 12 inches in diameter, loaded them on carts, hauled them to the mill and dumped them into a mixture of water and carbonate of soda. Drawn off into large vats, the borax crystallized on rods suspended in the solution. Workers knocked these crystals from the rods and piled them to dry before hauling the borax to the nearest railroad for shipment.
Coleman’s borax operation was not the first in Death Valley. Isadore Daunet, a Frenchman who had immigrated to San Francisco with his family at age 10, preceded Coleman by a year. Daunet had spent years roaming the West before wandering into Death Valley(and almost dying there) in 1880.While there he also happened across some unusual white crystals. When he later heard of Coleman’s purchase from Winters, he revisited the site and determined the crystals were indeed borax.
Daunet teamed up with two other men (a San Francisco broker and a local storekeeper), purchased the land, built the Eagle Borax Works and began production in fall 1882. The men were only able to produce crude salts and had difficulty getting borax to crystallize in the Death Valley heat. The business problems, coupled with a pending divorce, led Daunet to take his own life, and Eagle Borax eventually passed to Coleman.
Finding, as had Daunet, that summer processing at the Harmony site was impossible, as the borax solution could not cool sufficiently, Coleman purchased a second site near Shoshone, where summers were somewhat cooler, from Winters for $15,000 and built the Amargosa Borax Works there. It was at Amargosa that teamster Ed Stiles first hooked an additional six mules to the head of a 12- mule string, with two draft horses as “wheelers,” attached an extra wagon and gave birth to the soon-to-be-famous 20- mule team. “The 20-mule team was a brilliant solution to a transportation problem,” Dr. Randolph said. “It was a genuine technological breakthrough.”
Each wagon cost $900 to build and had7-foot-highrear wheels, 5-footfront wheels and beds 16 feet long, 4 feet wide and 6 feet deep. Empty, each weighed less than 4 tons, but two loaded wagons plusa500-gallonwatertankmadeaload of 73,200 pounds, or 36 1⁄2 tons. Operating the teams were three men—the driver, who wielded a 22-foot-long whip with a 6-foot handle; the teamster, who harnessed and unharnessed the mules, rode one of the horses and handled the brake of the lead wagon; and the swamper, who rode on the rear wagon, operated its brake on downgrades and doubled as cook and dishwasher.
The 20-mule teams and their oak wagons completed the 330-mile round-trip between the works and the railhead at Mojave, Calif., in about 20 days. One team left the works every four days, and at its height Coleman was shipping about 2 million pounds of borax per year from his Harmony and Amargosa facilities. These wagons remained in use until crews completed the narrow-gauge Borate & Daggett Railroad in 1898.
In late 1888 borax prices tumbled, forcing Coleman to declare bankruptcy. Francis Marion “Borax” Smith, who owned extensive borate properties in western Nevada, bought Coleman’s holdings—including the 20-mule teams and wagons—from creditors, thus securing a virtual monopoly of borax production in the country. Smith consolidated all of his holdings in 1890 to form the Pacific Coast Borax Co.
Smith’s conglomerate flourished, and he hired businessman J. W. Mather to administer his New York City office. It was Mather’s son, Stephen, who convinced New York Sun reporter John Randolph Spears to write Illustrated Sketches of Death Valley, an 1891 book that made the 20-mule team famous and vaulted it into becoming the company’s trademark. Smith sent a team and two refurbished Death Valley wagons to the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, and in the 1930s and ’40s Pacific Coast Borax sponsored the Death Valley Days radio program. It later evolved into a TV series that aired more than 500 episodes between 1952 and 1975, hosted for one stretch by actor and future president Ronald Reagan. Other hosts included Stanley Andrews, Robert Taylor and Dale Robertson.
In 1976 Congress passed the Mining in the Parks Act, which closed Death Valley National Monument to the filing of new mining claims and banned open pit mining at the location. Mining was allowed to resume there on a limited basis in 1980, with stricter environmental standards, but the last Death Valley borax operation, the Billie Mine, closed in 2005. Today the British–Australian conglomerate Rio Tinto operates an open-pit mine at Boron, in the Mojave Desert southwest of Death Valley, which supplies nearly half the world’s demand for borate compounds.
The remains of Harmony Borax Works were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Today Furnace Creek is home to a Death Valley National Park visitor center [www.nps.gov/deva] and a resort complex with an 18-hole golf course. Visitors will also find a borax museum in an 1883 mining office built by “Borax” Smith. The oldest house in Death Valley, it was moved there in 1954 from its original site in Twenty Mule Team Canyon.
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.