Fascination was the word for it, and in all my twenty
two years of working for US Borax I never ceased to be
captivated by the rugged old wagons sitting up there
on the edge of the open pit mine.
At quiet times I would often go and stand near these
old hand wrought creations, and run my hands over the
uneven oak surfaces and admire their stalwart
construction. The craftsmen who designed and built
them have long since gone to their just reward.
It's been well over a hundred years now, since the
jingle of the trace chains, the cluck of the wagons
and the shouts of the muleskinner echoed through the
canyons of this Mojave Desert. We mine boron by a far
different method now. Sixteen hundred horse power
engines roar along the pit haul roads and 4,160 volt
electric shovels whine, growl and slam, as they drop
well over twenty tons of ore into the beds of the
trucks with each swing of the dipper.
I was proud of my job as a borax miner. I was proud
of that 20 Mule Team trademark. I still am. Times
have changed a bit since I was responsible for hauling
ore to the top, but that trademark represents the men
who lived and worked the ore during my twenty two years from 1970 to
1992. I designed three belt buckles for Boron
Operations during those years, and they still adorn
the belts of several old miners and even some of the
younger ones. Admittedly, those buckles are hidden
below the pot bellies of some of those miners, but
The legendary 20 Mule Team's began with the discovery
of borax in California in 1881. This mineral, used
for thousands of years in ceramics and in the working
of gold, previously came from Tibet and Italy. Its
discovery here in western America resulted in a rapid
increase in the use of borax as a household cleanser.
It was also sold by many patent medicine peddlers as a
sure cure for everything from gout to ingrown
toenails, and the owners of the borax companies never
discouraged this practice for obvious reasons.
The dry borax strewn lake smack in the middle of
Death Valley, lay 165 raw, dusty, blistering, roadless
miles from the closest railhead in Mojave. The
Panamint Range looked down on Badwater, 282 feet below
sea level, from Telescope Peak's 11,049 feet above.
And borax wasn't worth a dime here in Death Valley.
Men,Mules, Mountains & the Mojave!
William T. Coleman, owner of the Harmony Borax Works
located on the edge of the immense dry lake where
borax was harvested, and near what is now Furnace
Creek Ranch, took on the Herculean task.
He had seen twelve-mule teams hauling heavy freight
loads, and had observed that the payload increased
disproportionately with each added pair of animals.
Experimenting, Coleman found that twenty mules could
move 36 tons with relative ease. But how could such a
long string of mules be used in tight canyons and on
narrow desert roads? Moreover, there weren't any
The route finally decided on, from Death Valley to
Mojave, exited the valley on the southern end of the
Panamint Range over Wingate Pass (Windy Gap). Coleman
ordered out a road building crew and a road of sorts
was hacked, blasted, hammered and shoveled over the
mountains and through the formidable wasteland. He
counted on the wheels of his wagons to do the rest.
The wagons Coleman ordered built in 1882, cost a
whopping $900 apiece, were of solid oak and were the
heaviest, largest, strongest, and toughest ever seen.
These enduring vehicles were designed by W.S. Perry,
then Superintendent of Harmony Borax Works, later to
become superintendent of Pacific Coast Borax Company.
A man with considerable technical skills and
experience in the borax industry. He not only
designed the wagons, but planned the route over which
they would travel and directed the road building
operations. The wagons were built in Mojave under the
supervision of John A. Delameter. Ten wagons were
built. The rear wheels of the first wagons were seven
feet, with the front wheels measuring five feet in
diameter. The steel tires were eight inches wide an
inch thick. The wagon beds were sixteen feet long,
four feet wide and six feet deep. Each wagon weighed
7,800 pounds and each "train" of two loaded wagons
carried twenty tons of ore and a water wagon.~ over 36
tons were pulled by the twenty mule teams.
Later rear wagon wheels were reduced to six feet in
diameter and seven inches wide. The wheels were of
He drove his team from the "box" of the bed of the
lead wagon, or if the going was rough, from the back
of the "nigh" wheeler or left hand animal nearest the
wheel. (usually a horse) His only means of controlling
the teams was his voice and a single "jerkline"
running through the collar rings of each left hand
mule up to the "leaders". A steady pull turned the
team left and a series of quick jerks sent them right.
A sight which never failed to amaze spectators and
make them aware that this was really a team they were
watching, as opposed to twenty mules merely hooked in
line, was that of the 'big team' taking a sharp turn.
To keep the eighty foot chain hitch from dragging at a
tangent across a turn and pulling the wagons off the
road, three mid team pairs of mules, "the eights" "the
sixes" and "the pointers", were trained to step nimbly
over the chain and pull at almost direct right angles
to the direction of the turn. This maneuver required
these particular mules to walk along sideways in their
forward progression, but it kept the chain lined up
with the wagons until the bend in the road or turn was
negotiated fully, then the teams would again assume
their regular positions by stepping again over the
chain. And this was how the skinners often worked
their loads through the narrow canyons. The skinner
always had a swamper-helper, and it's said that a
swamper seldom took two trips with the same skinner.
~The Mule TEAM~
Such 'big teams' had been used before in the west on
rare occasions, but they were makeshift, thrown
together for heavy hauling of the moment. To drive
what soon became THE 20 mule teams, Coleman hired the
most expert "long line" "skinners" in the business,
along with their "swamper-brakemen" The mules were
hitched to single trees and then to double trees
hooked into an eighty foot long chain which ran the
length of the team and fastened directly onto the lead
wagon. Two of the large wagons were then hooked
together and the water wagon behind them.
Ed Stiles was the first man to haul borax out of
Death Valley, driving a 12-mule outfit from Eagle
Borax Works to Daggett. When the outfit he drove was
sold to Coleman's Amargosa Borax Works, Stiles went
with it, and he and Superintendent Perry formed the
twenty-mule team by hitching a 12-mule team and an
eight-mule team in tandem.
Stiles was probably the first man to drive a twenty
mule team between Harmony & Mojave, over Wingate Pass.
It was a hazardous task to say the least. Heat,
cold, rattlesnakes, scorpions, dust, mule kicks and
even the huge wagons themselves as the skinner
hoorawed his team down the steep canyons in an effort
to outrun the oncoming 36 ton juggernauts when and if
the brakes failed to hold them.
Doubtless the skinners tried to out do one another,
and the round trip from Mojave to Harmony took ten to
thirteen days. They could make 16 to 18 miles a day.
Camp was made on the desert each night. The animals
had to be unharnessed, watered and fed before the
skinner & his helper were free to do what they needed
For five years, from 1883 to 1889, the 20 mule teams
moved thousands of tons of borax ore out of Death
Valley on a clockwork schedule. Not one of the wagons
ever broke down or failed in any way to make the trip.
on one occasion a swamper killed a skinner. He was
tried and sentenced in Mojave.
Coleman's Company finally failed and the Harmony
Borax Works was closed forever. Rusty bits and pieces
remain today as testimony of its existence, but little
Men and their fortunes came and went in and around
Death Valley. More efficient ways were devised to
move large loads of borax ore from the mines but none
so fanciful as the 20 mule teams. Pacific Coast
Borax, adopted the 20 mule team as their trademark.
U.S. Borax & Chemical Corporation bought them along
with the trademark and still displays it today.
For years the harnesses for the last 20 mule teams
were stored in the underground mine here at Boron's
open pit. I would often take friends and members of
the crew down there to look at the old harnesses. The
brass bells were eventually stolen as were most of the
collars. But those were historic times. Those were
good men in their way. And that trademark proudly
adorns all my cars to this very day. The Twenty Mule
Teams of Death Valley.