(Article copyright 1999, “BORAX – The Twenty Mule Team” story by U.S. Borax Inc., 26877 Tourney Rd., Valencia, CA 91355, 661-287-5400)
Borax was found useful by a number of ancient civilizations, though documentation of it’s uses are limited. Mainly by chance and limited experimentation, were it’s applied to daily life, as in the cleaning of clothes and early soaps. It was even use as a dental cleaner and in jewelry.
“Used for centuries in ceramics and goldsmithing, borax was originally imported to the United States from Tibet and Italy. A physician is credited with first discovering borax crystals in Northern California while testing a lake waters for medicinal properties. However, it wasn’t until ‘cottonballs’ – a crude ore compound of boron, oxygen, sodium, and calcium – was found in large quantities that the domestic industry sprang to life. Cottonball lay in shimmering masses on the ancient North American desert floor and could be harvested with a shovel. The challenge lay in transporting the borax out of the desolate wasteland for processing into a growing array of industrial and household [products].”
“Two men played key roles in bringing borates from the desert floor to industries and households around the world. One of the first was F.M. ‘Borax’ Smith. Smith established the first successful borax mining operation in 1872 at Teel’s Marsh, Nevada. Credited with starting the borax rush that swept the Nevada desert in the late 19th century, Smith founded the Pacific Coast Borax Company, predecessor to U.S. Borax [Company].”
“Another important borax pioneer was William T. Coleman, one of California’s most prominent businessman. In 1881, Coleman filed claims on the richest fields of crude ore yet discovered – hundreds of glistening, isolated acres of cottonball in formidable Death Valley. By the end of the 1880’s, he had established the Harmony Borax Works near what is now Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley.”
“According to legend, Coleman’s local superintendent and a young muleskinner named Ed Stiles though of hitching an eight- and twelve-mule team together to form a 100-foot long twenty mule-team. The borax load had to be hauled up and out of Death Valley over the steep Panamint Mountains, and across the desert to the nearest railroad junction at Mojave [, California]. The twenty day round trip started at 190 feet below sea-level and climbed to an elevation of nearly 4,000 feet before it was over.”
“Each wagon was to carry ten tons – about on-tenth the capacity of a modern railroad freight car. … Iron tires, eight inches wide and one inch thick – encased the seven-foot high rear wheels and five-foot front wheels. The split oak spokes measured five and one-half inches wide at the hub. Solid steel bars, three and one-half inches square, acted as the axle-trees. The wagon beds were sixteen feet long, four feet wide, and six feet deep. Empty, each wagon weight 7,800 pounds, Two loaded wagons plus the water tank made a total load of 73,200 pounds or 36 Ѕ tons.”
“Twenty mules were hitched to single- and double-trees then latched to a 120-foot chain running the length of the team. This chain was fastened directly onto the lead wagon. A long rope ran through the collar ring of each left-handed mule up to the leaders. Although the driver also yielded a whip with a six-foot handle and a 22-foot lash, his primary method for giving orders lay in manipulating this rope – called the jerk line – which ran the length of the team. A steady pull on the jerk line turned the team to the left; a series of jerks sent it to the right. The driver also rode the [left-hand mule] on the downhill stretches to operate the brake.”
“Swinging the team around a curve in a mountain pass tested both driver and team. … As the team started around a sharp curve, the chain tended to be pulled into a straight line between the lead mules and the wagon. To keep the chain going around the curve and not pull the team straight over the edge some of the mules were ordered to leap over the chain and pull at an angle away from the curve.
These mules – the pointers, sixes and eights – would step along sideways until the corner had been turned. Swinging a curve successfully was an awesome demonstration of training and teamwork.”
“Today it would take more than 250 mule teams to transport the borax ore processed in just one day at Borax’s modern facility in the Mojave Desert. Not surprisingly this mine supplies nearly half of the world’s borax needs.
Back when the mule teams were running, borates were a household staple. People used borax to aid digestion, keep milk sweet, improve their complexion and remove dandruff. Borax was also touted as ‘ excellent for washing carriages’ and useful for curing epilepsy and bunions.”
“Today, Borax knows much more about the ‘miracle mineral’ – and doesn’t recommend any of the medical uses that were popular more than a century ago. Instead, boric acid, borax and other compounds of boron are used in almost every major industry … Just a few of the modern products that depend on borates are: glass, porcelain enamel, ceramics, detergents and soaps, aircraft and automobile [parts] (light-weight, high-strength structural components), cosmetics and medicines, building materials (protect lumber), flame retardants (control burning), electronics (silicon treatment), agriculture (micronutrients to soil).”
All in all, borax is one of the safest, ecologically sound, and versatile minerals in use today, benefiting millions.