• Notes From The Frontier

Death Valley’s 20-Mule Borax Team

Mules are legendarily tough. They can survive on less water and forage than horses, can withstand greater heat, and have greater endurance. They proved their magnificent resilience in the ultimate test: crossing the infamously named Death Valley and Mojave Desert hundreds of times in the 1880s in iconic 20-mule team borax wagon trains. The trail was more than 165 miles of mostly brutal, killing desert that started from Death Valley, which could get up to 134 degrees Fahrenheit, went through the Mojave Desert, and ended in the town of Mojave.

Borax is a natural mineral found in deposits in the earth and was used as detergent in Europe and Asia since the 8th century AD. Worldwide, it was mined mostly in Turkey and Tibet, but when large deposits were discovered near Furnace Creek in Death Valley in 1881, miners and entrepreneurs flocked to the area to make their fortunes. Francis Marion Smith founded the Pacific Coast Borax Company and became the largest exporter of borax in the country.

Smith is generally credited with developing the 20-mule hitch to transport borax. The first shipment consisted of two massive wagons, 16-feet long, six-feet deep and weighing 7,800 pounds empty. The back wheels were seven-feet tall, weighed 800 pounds each and were rimmed with iron one inch thick. Two borax wagons were used and a third water wagon that held 1,200 gallons and also other supplies. The total weight of the first shipment was 73,200 pounds, or 36.6. tons. The trip generally took 10 or more days.

The teams were generally made up of 18 mules and two huge draft horses who were the “wheelers” closest to the wagon. The draft horses had greater brute strength for starting the wagons and could withstand the jarring of the heavy wagon tongue (mostly because of the horses’ sheer size and weight—they could each weigh more than a ton, whereas an average mule would weigh about half that). The team was hitched to a giant 80-foot chain and driven with a single long line, known as a “jerk line.” A second teamster, called a “swamper,” would ride the trailer and work the brake in downhill slopes. The team pulled the load about two-miles per hour and generally covered about 16 miles per day. They generally took a midday stop for water and feeding.

An efficient system was devised where the returning teams would transport feed and water from Mojave to points on the trail back to Death Valley. Since a team could not carry enough water or food for the 165-mile trek, it was necessary to have extra supplies along the way. In that manner, the 20-mule teams carried 20 million pounds of borax out of Death Valley between 1883 and 1889. By then, the Death Valley borax deposits had been nearly exhausted, but new discoveries of borax deposits near Bartow ended the Mojave shipments in 1889. Nevertheless, the Herculean efforts of the 20-mule wagon trains through 165 miles of the heat of hell left an indelible impression on the national imagination.

Today, there is a Death Valley National Park that commemorates the 20-mule wagon trains and the “20 Mule Team Borax” brand still exists and is used in households across America. The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair invited the 20-Mule Team hitch to be an attraction. After that, the hitch went on a national tour and was a sensation. In 1917, a “muleskinner” name “Borax Bill” Parkinson drove an original wagon from Oakland, California, to New York City. The two-year journey across the continent generated much fanfare, and then the hitch appeared in President Wilson’s inauguration parade in Washington DC in 1917 as well.

A mule team with borax wagons appeared in the 1937 Golden Gate Bridge Dedication. And the 1999 Rose Parade hosted a 20-mule team with shining bright refurbished wagons and all the mules and two draft horse “wheelers” wore shiny harnesses with bells. Since then, some historic reenactors have even revisited the arduous trail with their modern-day mules.

There are no descendants of the actual borax mules that pulled their heavy loads across the desert in the 1800s. Mules are a cross between a male donkey and a female horse, so they are sterile and cannot have offspring. But, rest assured, they left a legacy. If you ever visit Death Valley, squint under the fiery sun burning down on the Mojave sands and look close. You just might see a flicker on the horizon, a slow-moving mirage, toiling, leaning into their harnesses, heading West into the sun, echoes of supreme labor 140 years ago.

See related post:

-For the Love of Horses (& Mules!)


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