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History

History of Borax Mining in California

In 1881 Aaron Winters, was a prospector who was living in the Ash Meadows region of Death Valley with his wife, Rosie. One day, the Winters met Henry Spiller, a wandering prospector and offered him a place to stay for the night. Spiller told the Winters of the growing interest in the mineral borax and showed them crystal samples of the mineral he called "cottonball". Aaron Winters took one look at the crystals and realized there were acres and acres of this mineral on the ancient lake beds that covered the floor of Death Valley.

The next morning Spiller left and Aaron Winters rode off to the nearby lake bed to gather a sample of the crystals he believed to be the mineral the stranger had described to him. Winters gathered a bagful of cottonball crystals and headed back to Ash Meadows. Stiller had told Winters about a test for borax which included pouring alcohol and sulfuric acid over the crystals and set it on fire. If the flame burned green, it was borax. Shortly after sundown, Winters and his wife performed the test on the sample that Aaron had gathered from the dry lake bed. Aaron shouted to his wife, "She burns green, Rosie. We're rich, by God!"

The Winters quickly sold their Death Valley claim to William T. Coleman, a prominent San Francisco businessman for $20,000. Word of the discovery spread quickly and the borax industry in Death Valley was born.

In 1882 Coleman opened the Harmony Borax Works near what is today called Furnace Creek. Coleman hired Chinese laborers to scrape the cottonball ore from the ancient lake bed and paid them a mere $1.50 per day. The blazing 130 degree heat of the Death Valley floor made the reprocessing of the ore nearly impossible at the Furnace Creek location. Coleman decided to move the processing to nearby Shoshone and built the Amaragosa Borax Works. The two plants produced approximately two million tons of borax a year but, left Coleman with a unique problem. How to get the borax to the nearest railroad spur located 165 miles from Death Valley in Mojave?

The Twenty Mule Team

Coleman's mining superintendent J.W.S. Perry and a young muleskinner named Ed Stiles came up with the idea of hauling the borax ore to Mojave by hitching two ten-mule teams together to form a 100-foot-long, twenty mule team. The borax wagons had to be hauled up and out of Death Valley, over the steep Panamint Mountains and across the scorching desert to reach Mojave. The 20-day round trip started 190 feet below sea level and climbed to an elevation of 2,000 feet. Specialized wagons would also be needed to haul the ore to Mojave.

The borax wagons were built in Mojave at a cost of $900 each. Each wagon was designed to carry ten tons of borax ore and to withstand the grueling trip across the treacherous Panamint mountains and to grind through the sand and gravel of the arid desert floor. The wagon's rear wheels measured seven-feet-high and the front wheels measured five-foot-high. The tires were made of one inch thick iron and measured eight inches across. The wagons beds measured 16 feet long and were 6 feet deep. The wagons were constructed of solid oak and weighed 7,800 pounds empty. When the two wagons were loaded with ore and a 500 gallon water tank was added the total weight of the mule train was 73,200 pounds or 36 1/2 tons. When the mules were added to the wagons the caravan stretched over 100 feet.

Eighteen mules and two horses were hitched together by single and double trees to form the twenty mule team. They were then latched to an 80-foot chain running the entire length of the team which was fastened directly onto the lead wagon. A long rope ran through the collar ring of each left-hand mule up to the lead mules. This rope was called the "jerk line" and was the primary method the driver had of controlling the team. A steady and hard pull of the jerk line turned the mule team to the left. A series of jerks turned the team to the right.

Three men were needed to operate the twenty mules team. The "Driver" sat on top of the lead wagon and held the reins while guiding the team across the rugged terrain of the Mojave Desert. The "Teamster" or "Muleskinner" rode one of the horses which were the last two animals in the line. One of the "Muleskinner's" primary responsibilities was harnessing and unharnessing the team and handling the brake of the lead wagon. The "Swamper" rode on the rear wagon and was responsible for manning the rear wagon's brake on the steep downhill descents. He was also the chief cook and dishwasher on the trip.

The Twenty Mule Teams hauled more than 20 million pounds of borax out of Death Valley between 1883 and 1889.


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