Mules and Borax: A Death Valley Legacy

Mules and Borax: A Death Valley Legacy

Written by: , September 06th, 2016

Reminders of the iconic 20 Mule Team, a symbol of Death Valley, remain near The Oasis at Death Valley today.

Which Death Valley animals appeared at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, attended Woodrow Wilson’s 1917 inauguration and the 1937 dedication of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco?

If you answered mules — specifically the 20 Mule Team that hauled borax out of Death Valley in the late 19th century — you would be right!

Those of a certain age might recall this mule team from the long-running Death Valley Days television series and its sponsor, 20 Mule Team Borax. You might even have a box of the detergent booster in your laundry room.

The product and its 20 Mule Team logo remain an iconic symbol of Death Valley some 125 years after it was introduced. Its longevity is a testament not only to the cleansing power of borax, but to the power of marketing, as well.

But first, some history: In the 19th century, borax was an ingredient used in ceramics and gold mining, but it was also touted as a cure-all for everything from dandruff to epilepsy. First found in dry lakebeds in Tibet, it was transported in ancient times along the Silk Road. Then, in the late 1800s, bountiful deposits were discovered in Nevada, and later, in Death Valley, California.

The mineral was fairly easy to extract. The challenge: transporting it from the otherworldly terrain of Death Valley, where temperatures shoot to 125 degrees and higher in summer, and where roads and rail lines were, at the time, nonexistent.

Enter William Coleman, who staked a claim in 1881 near present-day Furnace Creek. (The area now serves as Death Valley National Park’s tourist hub, hosting park service headquarters, campgrounds, and two lodgings, the AAA Four Diamond Inn at Death Valley and the family-friendly Ranch at Death Valley.) The entrepreneur devised a way to haul the mineral via huge wagons pulled by mules to the nearest train spur in Mojave, California. It was a 165-mile slog that took 10 days and required two teams of 18 hearty mules, each led by two sturdy horses.

From about 1883 to 1889, when the teams operated out of the Harmony Borax Works, not a single mule or wagon was lost.

The extension of rail lines and the discovery of more accessible borax deposits sparked the demise of the Death Valley mining operation after just six years or so. But by that time, the mules had hauled a staggering 20 million pounds of borax from the Death Valley badlands.

And though their brute strength was no longer needed, the mule teams proved to be a powerful marketing tool decades later. The Pacific Coast Borax Co. (later U.S. Borax), which acquired Coleman’s operations and registered the 20 Mule Team trademark in 1894, hit on innovative ways to perpetuate the image into the next century with appearances in the World’s Fair, a presidential inauguration, and a bridge dedication.

The Western film Twenty Mule Team hit the big screen in 1940. The long-running Death Valley Days radio series, featuring true stories of the American West, debuted in 1930, followed by a TV show of the same name that aired from 1952 to 1970. (Ronald Reagan hosted in 1964-1965, before he gave up his acting career for politics.)

Vestiges of borax mining and the mules who made it possible remain in Death Valley. The adobe ruins of the Harmony Borax Works, which are on the National Register of Historic Places, lie a mile north of The Oasis at Death Valley on Highway 190. A short interpretive trail tells the story of the men who labored here. One of the last remaining wagons is also on display.

At The Ranch, the Borax Museum, the oldest structure in Death Valley, contains a mineral collection, an exhibit on the history of borax in Death Valley, and pioneer-era mining and transportation equipment.

And Twenty Mule Team Canyon, off Highway 190 east of The Oasis at Death Valley, pays homage to those hard-working beasts of burden in a 2.7-mile-loop drive dotted with borax mine shafts.


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Written by: Jayne Clark

Washington, DC-based freelance travel writer Jayne Clark has been a travel reporter at USA TODAY and several other daily newspapers.