~ The Twenty Mule Team ~


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 they're there.

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 roads.

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.

~Wagons~

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 oak.

~The Muleskinner~

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 to do.

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 else.

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.

~ Weakeyes Cody



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