The Borax twenty mule team is one of the most memorable icons of the American West, and of the pioneers who transformed its mineral wealth into a foundation of modern industry throughout the world.
Today, that twenty mule team is the proud symbol of a visionary company that remains the global supplier of choice for customers seeking outstanding products, value and service.
The saga of the twenty mule team began more than a century ago in the arid deserts of California's Death Valley. But the same spirit of enterprise, innovation and service that gave rise to the world-famous "Twenty Mules of Death Valley" continues on to this day at Borax facilities worldwide.
Borax maintains its position as the world leader in borate chemistry and borate technology through its advanced mining facilities, refineries, and research and development laboratories. The company's global distribution network also provides unsurpassed service to customers in nearly 100 countries around the world. Programs to ensure that borate products are used and handled safely, as well as environmental programs designed to protect the world our customers and employees live in, are further examples of Borax's goal to be the best: a goal that started more than 100 years ago.
Two men played key roles in bringing borates from the desert floor to industries and households around the world. The first was Francis 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.
Another important borax pioneer was William T. Coleman, one of California's most prominent businessmen. 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 early 1880s, he established the Harmony Borax Works near what is now Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley.
With a growing demand for borax and an apparently unlimited reserve of crude ore, Coleman needed to find the quickest, surest way to move his product out of Death Valley.
According to legend, Coleman's local superintendent J.W.S. Perry and a young muleskinner named Ed Stiles thought of hitching two ten-mule teams together to forms a 100-foot-long, twenty mule team. The borax load had to be hauled 165 miles up and out of Death Valley, over the steep Panamint Mountains and across the desert to the nearest railroad junction at Mojave. The 20-day round trip started 190 feet below sea level and climbed to an elevation of 2,000 feet before it was over.
Built in Mojave for $900 each, the wagons' design balanced strength and capacity to cary the heavy load of borax ore. Each wagon was to carry ten tons — about one-tenth the capacity of a modern railroad freight car. But instead of rolling on steel rails over a smooth roadbed, these wagons had to grind through sand and gravel and hold together up and down steep mountain grades. 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 16 feet long, four feet wide and six feet deep. Empty, each wagon weighed 7,800 pounds. Two loaded wagons plus the water tank made a total load of 73,200 pounds or 36 1/2 tons.
Between 1883 and 1889, the twenty mule teams hauled more than 20 million pounds of borax out of the Valley. During this time, not a single animal was lost, nor did a single wagon break down — a considerable tribute to the ingenuity of the designers and builders and the stamina of the men and mules.
The route from Death Valley to Mojave covered 165 miles from Harmony to the first water at Bennett's Wells, 53 miles to Lone Willow, 26 to Granite Wells, an easy six miles to Blackwater, then a 50-mile waterless stretch to Mojave. The rugged topography and climate added to the distance to create a treacherous journey. Blistering temperatures often ran as high as 130° F (or 55° C) in summer. Work crews blasted and hammered a roadbed of sorts over this rugged wasteland — the mules and wheels of the wagons had to do the rest.