Harmony Borax Mines, Death Valley National Park
Borax was discovered in Death Valley back in 1881. The following year, the Harmony Borax Works was constructed to process the Borax and ship it to a depot in Mojave California. Out of the necessity to transport the Borax, the 20 Mule Team was created and special carts were design, which examples can be seen at the site today. The discovery of Borax in other parts of Death Valley eventually forced Harmony Borax Works out of business and only operated for only 5 years.
The site has ruins of the processing area and a twenty mule team wagon. Interpretive signs along a loop trail provide information about the process and living conditions. The total length of the loop is less than .5 miles.
This marker reads:
In 1881 Aaron Winters discovered borax on the marsh near this point. He later sold his holdings to W. T. Coleman of San Francisco, who built the Harmony Borax Works in 1882 and commissioned his superintendent, J. W. S. Perry, to design wagons and locate a suitable route to Mojave. The work of gathering the ore (called 'cottonball') was done by Chinese workmen. From this point, 20-mule teams transported the processed borax 165 miles to the railroad until 1889.
Old Harmony Borax Works Historical Marker#773
When Borax was discovered back in 1881 by William Tell Coleman found near Furnace Creek Ranch (then called Greenland). Harmony plant began to process ore in late 1883 employing at least 40 men who produced three tons of borax daily for five years and went out of operation of production in 1888, when Coleman’s financial empire collapsed. The plant became famous through the use of large mule teams and double wagons "20-mule team" that hauled borax to Mojave. To this day that symbols embodies the hardiness of beast and man!
It was our last stop of the afternoon, and the sun was getting high and the temperature even higher. Adding to this the wind was getting u and so we stepped out of the car into the sauna that was the "Harmony Borax Works". The place was deserted and there isn't a great deal to see. Although saying that it's nice and quiet and evokes those thoughts of what conditions must have been like to live and work in such a harsh climatic environment.
It was then back to the hotel for a dip in the cool swimming pool.
What is Borax?
"Borax powder is a made from the naturally occurring mineral sodium borate. Borax has many applications and is widely used in cosmetics and as a cleaning agent. You can usually find borax powder in the laundry department of your local grocery store. It has a two- to three-year shelf life and should be stored away from excessive moisture."
Borax (sodium borate) is formed from repeated evaporation of seasonal lakes. Its chemical analysis is anhydrous borax, 53.8 percent; boric acid, 37.2 percent; sodium oxide, 16.6 percent; water of crystallization, 46.2 percent; and chloride, 37 parts per million
Since the cost and effort of transporting material out of Death Valley was extreme, the Harmony Borax Works built a facility to refine their product before sending it 165 miles by twenty mule team to the railroad. This facility has long been abandoned is now a mere ruin. However, the site is preserved and signage tells the story and explains the relics that remain. It is a self guided walk and is easily accessible from Highway 190.
If you're looking for the entrance to this, the map can be a little deceiving, since there's a one-way road you take, and the entrance is on the southern part of the loop - not the northern part (may be confusing coming from the north anyway). This mine was the first successful borax mine in Death Valley. At the site, you can see a number of the ruins of the old mine and a few miscellaneous pieces of equipment. There's a very short trail along the mine site, with a few placards. You can then jump in your car and head down the one way road to see a few more ruins from the mine and pass through a small canyon area as well before jumping back on the main road.
This is an easy one-quarter of a mile round trip walk that will take you about half an hour. Interpretive signs along trail will tell you the story of the historic Harmony Borax Works. The trail will take you past ruins, equipment, and a 20-mule-team wagon. In the early 1880s, when borax was discovered in the valley, the Harmony plant began to process this ore and ship it out from the valley. Although it only operated for 5 years, it employed 40 men who produced about three tons of borax daily. The operation became famous because of the use of large mule teams and double wagons that hauled the finished product through the desert to Majave. The image of the 20-mule team is still familiar today, as it has become the symbol of the borax industry in the United States.
Twenty Mule Teams which were 7,800 pound wagons each hauling at least 12 tons of borax and bone on wheels seven feet high with eight inch steal tires with a train that measured 160 feet long with the best trained twenty mules. They then transported the Borax to the Mojave Desert Railhead 165 miles of scorching desert heat in the summer and freezing temperatures in the winter.
The driver "Skinner", had to handle his mules in all conditions. He was veterinarian, blacksmith, and a repairman when something had to be fixed on the wagon.
The drivers assistant "Swamper" had numerous duties. Going up grades he walked along the teams. On downgrades he handle the brakes on the rear wagon. He also was in charge of making the camp, hooking and unhooking the mules, and feeding them. Gathered fuel for the fires, cooked, and washed the dishes.
It was easy driving them on a straight path, but when they need to manuever around corners is when their intelligence and skill came into play. The mules consisted of specialized teams to perform a specific function. 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, some of the span of mules were ordered to leap the chain and pull at an angle away from the curve. These mules the "pointers" the "sixes" and the "eights" would step along sideways until the curve successfully was a real demonstration of the training and intelligence of the mules as well as the skill of the driver. The (1st) row where called, "The Leaders". The next (5) rows were called, "The Swing Teams", the next (7th) row called, "The Eights, (8th) row called the sixes, (9th) row called the pointers, and the (10th) last row called, "The Wheelers" which were the largest and strongest of the mules. The driver rode the "high wheeler" (left hand mule) and from this position operated the brake on the front wagon.
To carry the borax out of the valley, they needed to carefully design the wagons, as it was heavy load. The “Twenty Mule Team Wagon” was built for transport to the railroad at Mojave, which is 165 km away from the Harmony Borax Works. The total load of these wagons could be up to 30 tons !
Actually, it was 18 mules and 2 horses…
This plant was established in 1883, shortly after the first borax was found there. Fully operated, it produced 3 tons of borax those days. The plant was closed in 1888, due to financial problems of it's owner.
There is still remains of the machinery, the mule waggons, ovens and all that.
In this desert area, it gives a glimpse of the "old" days in a nice scenery :-) s*
This marker says:
Old Harmony Borax Works
On the marsh near this point borax was discovered in 1881 by Aaron Winters who later sold his holdings to W.T. Coleman of San Francisco. In 1882 Coleman built the Harmoney Borax Works and commissioned his superintendent J.W.S. Perry to design wagons and locate a suitable route to Mojave. The work of gathering the ore (called cottonball) was done by Chinese workmen. From this point, processed borax was transported 165 miles by twenty mule team to the railroad until 1889.
California Registered Historical Landmark No. 773
Plaque placed by the California State Park Commission in cooperation with the Death Valley ’49ers, Inc. And the National Park Service. November 10, 1962.
We know what men could do for gold and when it came to 'white" gold and not "yellow" gold we guess people were ready to go the extra 'mile" or should we say "mule" to get the job done.
Harmony Borax Works, as the name suggests, was a mine where Borax was mined. This Borax (or "white gold" as it is called) was transported across 165 miles of desert terrain using wagons (see picture of original wagons on left) drawn by 18 mules & 2 horses. Hence the name "20 mule teams". The remains of this once thriving mine echoes life's bitter refrain. "All good things must come to an end".
While water and vegetation may be in short supply in Death Valley, the landscape is an excellent source of precious minerals. The Harmony Borax Mines were the first successful mining venture in the valley. Today, ruins of the old mine stand along a quarter mile interpretive trail that explains the importance of borax and exhibits the tools used to remove this profitable mineral.
A couple of them are displayed outside the Furnace Creek Ranch area. The team consisted of 18 mules and 2 horses. The wagon train was used to haul borax from Death Valley to a rail station in Mohave, a distance of 165 miles. The trip took 10 days and the borax weighed 24 tons.
Harmony Borax Interpetive Trail - Located just north of Furnace Creek are ruins of the first successful borax plant in Death Valley built in 1882. Although successful with more to be mined, the operation was tranferred to Dagget which is closer to rail transportation. Besides a wagon train, part of the old boiler and vat are still standing.