Land of the 20 mule teams


Remember Death Valley Days, the classic TV western? How about 20 Mule Team Borax, the old-timey whitener and brightener for laundry?

For those of my approximate vintage (you know who you are), Death Valley and those 20 mule teams were the stuff of legend and romance, even though at that tender age, I never quite understood what the connection was.

After visiting both Boron, California, and Death Valley, now I do.

Bad weather and the lure of wifi (false, as it turned out) persuaded me to spend a few days at an RV park in Boron, California, on highway 58 less than 100 miles west of the Mojave National Preserve. Boron, not Death Valley, is where one of the largest deposits of high-quality borates in the world are located.

Just so you know, boron is an element that is found universally in water, soil, and in ourselves. Borates are a family of minerals containing boron, and these are mined for their very useful properties, from whitening clothes to repelling insects to fertilizing plants. Borates come in several flavors (ulexite, kernite, borax, colmanite), but they all seem to be a beautiful, white crystalline rock.

borax crystal

The Death Valley mines were never as productive as the mine near Boron, and eventually all mining ended in Death Valley because it was considered “high impact,” i.e. ugly for tourists to look at. No such problem in Boron, where open pit mining continues to this day unimpeded by pesky tourists. The pit is now 800 feet deep, and it’s darned big. I have to say, however, that as much as I hate mining, this is a barren piece of earth, and the mining consists of digging the mineral out of the ground, not of fouling rivers with heavy metals or of leveling mountains. It’s more like a huge gravel pit—ugly, but not toxic.

Rio Tinto borax mine

Despite the fame and romance of the 20 mule teams, they only hauled ore for about 5 years at the end of the 1800s, until the railroads came to the mines. Some random trivia about the teams:

  • · When mining began in Death Valley, the railhead was 160 miles away in Mojave, so—Eureka!—the solution was to build incredibly stout wagons and hitch up a bunch of animals to haul rocks through the most forbidding geography in North America. Why? Because it would make a few people rich.
  • · The mule teams covered from 16 to 18 miles per day. The round trip from Furnace Creek in Death Valley to Mojave took 20 days. One 60-mile stretch had no water.
  • · Summer temperatures ranged from 130 to 150 degrees.
  • · Mules responded to their names and were trained and intelligent.
  • · Mule teams were driven by a skinner, who rode the “nigh wheel” mule—the left-hand mule closest to the cart. A steady pull on the “jerk” line, which ran the length of the teams, meant go left; a jerk meant go right. Rounding tight corners through the mountains required some delicate maneuvering.
  • · Bill Parkinson (“Borax Bill”) was the pre-eminent skinner, known for his energetic vocabulary and his black-snake whip.
  • · Borax wagons were thick and sturdy. The two wagons held a railcar-load of ore. With 1,200 gallons of water, the total load weighed 60,000 pounds.

Death Valley and the mule teams had petered out by the time human trolls began the Boron mining operation in 1927. As the story goes, Dr. J.K. Suckow was drilling for water, hoping to build a health spa when he hit colemanite instead. For him, it was as good as gold. This mine still produces half the world’s supply of borax.

Borax is king!

Rio Tinto, a global mining concern, acquired the mine in 1967. Visitors are welcome to a center built on a pile of tailings high above the actual mining operation, where we are served a heaping spoonful of propaganda along with a lot of interesting information. According to corporate literature, the mine has enough ore to last 40 more years; according to a guy at the visitors’ center, it will only last five. You decide.


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11 Responses to Land of the 20 mule teams

  1. Kate 22 April, 2011 at 3:50 pm #

    If you’re looking for the slab series, it began on March 1, so click on March and start clicking on \older posts\ until you get where you need to go.

    I’m planning to redo that clunky archive format this summer when I meet with my web guru. Let me know if you keep having trouble, and I’ll email you a link to whatever post you’re looking for.


  2. Richard 22 April, 2011 at 1:15 am #

    hi , girl, how do i get back to the archives, when i click on a month it keeps going to same page

  3. Theodora 20 April, 2011 at 6:36 am #

    20 mule teams means *nothing* to me as a Brit, but I love this little slice of history.

  4. Hopesurvives 18 April, 2011 at 5:14 pm #

    I enjoyed your article on Boron; I lived there for 2 years during 1980-82. I remember how hot it got there in the summer but at least there wasn’t any humidity. The winds can be atrocious; one day I was driving down the highway (I am a lead foot so I was going 55 plus MPH) leaving Boron and heading towards Mojave and the wind was blowing so hard that a tumble weed passed me up.

    • Kate 18 April, 2011 at 10:39 pm #

      I sampled the wind while I was there, but tumbleweed at over 55 mph–that’s quite a visual.

      Thanks for reading.


  5. cary carlson 14 April, 2011 at 5:28 pm #

    I still have one of the kits of the 20 mule team and the boxy wagons. Put out by Borax? It’s at least 50 years old. The dark brown mule halves snap together and the wagon parts and wheels and water barrels are blue plastic, some silvery thread connects the mule train. Nostalgia, need to go find it. Cary

    • Kate 15 April, 2011 at 6:50 pm #

      No kidding! I wonder what it’s worth now.

  6. Gail Brown 14 April, 2011 at 10:48 am #

    Good morning, Kate! You are in my old stomping grounds, isn’t is beautiful! I hope you go to Tehachapi while you are close, I thought it was amazing place and the windmills were something to see!
    God Bless You!

    • Kate 14 April, 2011 at 1:47 pm #

      Actually, Gail, I drove through Tehachapi and took pics of the windmills. Pretty amazing! Also kinda cold.

  7. Marcia Davis 13 April, 2011 at 6:06 pm #

    I’ve been wondering about boron, Kate! Thanks for the detailed history and info!

    • Kate 14 April, 2011 at 1:49 pm #

      I never gave one thought to boron in my life, so you are probably the black swan among human beings. Next post: Boron, California. Stay tuned.

      ps: where can I read about your recent travels? Is your Cuba blog up?