When people think of the 20-mule team they think of the little town of Boron, US Borax, Boraxo, Borateam Laundry soap and the famous 20-mule team wagons which appeared in the 1999 Tournament of Roses parade and other places; but how many of you have read the history of the 20-mule team and its wagons? Well while researching the high desert I found some interesting history on the 20-mule team and its wagons: the following is what I found according to Wikipedia, Calif. Historical Landmarks and Pacific Coast Borax.
The 20-mule teams were teams of 18 mules and two horses that were attached to large wagons which transported borax out of Death Valley, California from 1883 to 1889. The teams traveled from mines across the Mojave Desert to the nearest railroad spur which was located 165 miles away in Mojave CA. The routes were from the Harmony and Amargosa Borax Works to Daggett California and later Mojave; after the Harmony and Amargosa mines shut down in 1888, the mule teams route was moved to the mines at Borate which is located 3 miles east of Calico then back to Daggett; there, they worked from 1891 to 1898 until they were replaced by the Borate and Dagget Railroad. The wagons were the largest ever pulled by draft animals and were designed to carry 10 short tons of borax at a time.
In 1877, six years before 20-mule teams had been introduced into Death Valley; Francis Marion Smith and his brother had shipped their companys borax in a 30-ton load using two large wagons with a third wagon for food and water drawn by a 24-mule team over a 160-mile stretch of desert between Teel’s Marsh and Wadsworth, Nevada. The rear wheels measured 7 feet high with tires made of 1-inch-thick iron; the wagon beds measured 16 feet long and were six feet deep constructed of solid oak. They weighed 7800 pounds empty and when loaded with ore, the total weight of the mule train was 73,200 pounds. The first wagon was called the trailer the second wagon was called the tender or the back action and the tank trailer (1200-gallon water tank) brought up the rear of the wagon train: with the mules attached, the caravan stretched over 180 feet and due to their rugged construction, no wagon ever broke down in transit on the desert. Water barrels on the wagons were mounted for teamsters and swampers as water supplies were refilled at springs along the way and it wasn’t possible to carry enough water for the entire trip; the water tank was used at dry camps and water stops. Teams headed outbound from Mojave pulling empty wagons hauled their own feed and supplies which were dropped off at successive camps as the outfit traveled. The supplies would be on hand to use when a loaded wagon came back the other way and no payload space was wasted. There was one stretch of road where a 500-gallon wagon was added to take water to a dry camp for the teams that would be coming from the opposite direction and the arriving team would use the water and take the empty tank back to the spring on their haul the next day ready for refilling in staging by the next outbound outfit. All in all, the 20-mule teams hauled more than 20 million tons of borax out of Death Valley in the six years of operation; Pacific Coast Borax began shipping borax by train in 1898. The horses used were known as wheelers or the two closest to the wagon and they were ridden by one of the two men generally required to operate the wagons and who were typically larger than their mule brethren.
The horses had great brute strength for starting the wagons moving and could withstand the jarring of the heavy wagon tongue but the mules were smarter and better suited for work in desert conditions. The teamster drove the team with a single long reign known as a jerk line and the aid of a long blacksnake whip and usually rode the left Wheeler but he could also drive from the trailer seat working the brake on steep descents. The swamper usually rode the trailer but in hilly country, he would be on the back action available to work the brake; from the trailer armed with a can of small rocks he could pelt an inattentive mule and send it back to work: both men were responsible for readying the team as well as feeding and watering the mules in harness and any veterinary care or repairs that needed to be done to the wagons or harnesses. There were mid-day stops along the way to feed and water the mules in harness and at night, the stops had corrals and feed boxes for the mules. A day's travel averaged about 17 miles varying slightly from leg to leg and it took approximately 10 days to make a trip one way; cabins were constructed by the company for use of drivers and swampers at the night stops.
Francis Marion Smith also known as Borax bill founded Pacific Coast Borax and was a great promoter who sent drivers out with jerk line teams to major U.S. cities to promote the company's laundry product with free samples. The exhibition teams were typically mules for the promotion value but Smith explained they actually used wheel horses as standard practice; outside contractors hauling for the company typically used mixed teams. According to an advertising campaign on the DESERT USA website, Bill Parkinson who was a former night watchman for the company had to learn quickly how to drive the team when he was given the name Borax Bill. Parkinson was the first but not the last driver known by this name. The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair was the maiden appearance for the team and was such a success that Parkinson went on tour. According to an article written in the DESERT MAGAZINE and dated Sept. 1939, other appearances included President Wilson’s Inauguration in 1917 and periodic re-enactment appearances in Death Valley; the team also made its way to New York City parading down Broadway; after the showing, the mules were sold and the wagons were shipped back to California. The mule team also made an appearance at the Golden Gate Bridge dedication according to “The Last Ride, the Twenty Mule Team 1883-1999". The team also made a symbolic appearance hauling ore out of the new open pit borax mine at U.S. Borax in Boron, Calif. commemorating the transition from underground to open-pit mining in 1958. Promotional team appearances ended with an outing in the 1999 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California and a shake-down outing in the 1998 Twenty Mule Team Days Parade in Boron; the company spent approximately $100,000 refitting the 115-year old wagons and obtaining harnesses and mules for the performance; the last appearance for the team in Boron was on the 90th Anniversary of Borax mining operations in the Boron area and there are no plans for additional public appearances for advertising purposes as the company no longer holds the retail product line.
The Twenty Mule Team Borax Terminus is California Historical Landmark #652 and was located in the 16000 block of Sierra Highway in Mojave; historical landmark status was given on July 1, 1958 and the marker reads, “Just west of this point was the Southern Pacific Terminus for the Twenty Mule Team borax wagons that operated between Death Valley and Mojave from 1884-1889. The route ran from the Harmony Borax Works Mining Company to the railroad loading dock in Mojave over 165 miles of mountain and desert trail. A round trip required 20 days. The ore wagons which hauled a payload of 24 tons were designed by J. W. S. Perry, Borax Company superintendent in Death Valley and built in Mojave at a cost of $900 each. New borax discoveries near Barstow ended the Mojave shipments in 1889”.