By Mark Waite
People who grew up in the 1960s can remember when then-actor Ronald Reagan promoted Twenty Mule Team Borax on advertisements during the television show “Death Valley Days” a western series chronicling tales from Death Valley that aired between 1952 and 1975.
This weekend, a recreation of the mule teams that transported borax from Death Valley to Mojave, Calif., will be shown for the reopening of the Visitors Center at Furnace Creek at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Terry Baldino, chief of interpretation for Death Valley National Park, said the 20-mule team will stay at Furnace Creek all next week at the request of organizers of the 63rd Annual Death Valley 49ers Encampment Nov. 7-11, an event that features an old time pickin’ and fiddle contest, parade, prospector’s race, art show and costume contest.
Bobby Tanner, who works the mules during Mule Days in Bishop, Calif., will supply the mules; the wagons will come from the Twenty Mule Team Museum in Boron, Calif., Baldino said. Tanner will give a presentation at the Furnace Creek air strip about the mule trains at 11 a.m. on Saturday; it will be followed by a mule train journey from Furnace Creek up Highway 190 to the remains of the Harmony Borax Works, about a mile past the visitor center, he said. On Sunday, the mule train will make the same trip at 2:30 p.m. after the visitor center dedication.
One of the world’s largest and richest deposits of borax was discovered in Death Valley in 1881, a mineral used to make a wide variety of products, including Pyrex glass, antifreeze and face creams.
William Coleman, who founded the Pacific Coast Borax Company, hired Chinese laborers for $1.50 per day to scrape the ore from the desert floor. Specially designed wagons, hauled by 20-mule teams, were used to transport borax from Death Valley 165 miles to a railhead near Mojave, Calif., a grueling 10-day trip over 2,000-foot mountains. The mule trains lasted from 1883 to 1889 during which time they transported 20 million pounds of borax.
Tourist information from the Twenty Mule Team Museum states the wagons weighed 7,800 pounds empty and could carry 10 tons, about one-tenth the capacity of a modern railroad freight car. Museum officials say not a single animal was lost, not a single wagon broke down.
Coleman incorporated Harmony Borax Mining Company on May 15, 1884 with $500,000 in capital. The Harmony Borax Works had two dissolving tanks, each holding 3,000 gallons. A steam boiler 17 feet long and four feet in diameter heated the tanks, which still stand in Death Valley. Operations were closed from early June to October.
The Harmony Borax Mining Company shut down in 1888 due to a drop in the price of borax.
Borax mining operations moved to Boron, Calif. in the 1920s where there was a huge deposit, Baldino said, but there are still some mining claims in Death Valley that aren’t being worked. The company later was called U.S. Borax, it is now owned by Rio Tinto Mining Company.
There’s only three sets of mule team wagons still in existence, Baldino said: the one at the Harmony Borax Works in Boron, one in front of the Furnace Creek Ranch and the other at an exhibit in Death Valley off Highway 190.
The wagon at the Boron location was taken apart and used in the Rose Bowl Parade in 1998-99, Baldino said. The mule train, long a symbol of Death Valley, was displayed at the 49ers encampment in 1999, he said.
It takes a great deal of finesse with that many mules together, Baldino said. The tricky part is making turns, when the mules have to avoid jumping over the chains, he said.
The Furnace Creek Visitors Center is typical of the Mission 66 style of architecture that dominated National Park Service facilities in the 1950s and 60s. It will have a refreshed interior with new interpretive exhibits including a 3-D map describing various park attractions. The building is constructed by LEED energy saving components.
The president and chief executive officer of Rio Tinto will attend the event and the nephew of Death Valley ranger and singer/songwriter Stan Jones. Musicians Jean Pickard and Don Truby of the group South Coast will play in the visitor center courtyards Saturday and Sunday.
Entrance fees to Death Valley National Park will be waived this weekend. More information is available by logging onto www.nps.gov/deva/planyourvisit.com or by calling 1-760-786-3207.