Of all the minerals mined in Death Valley over the years, borax produced the most profits, and became known as the White Gold of the desert. Borates are salt minerals. They were deposited in ancient lake beds that were uplifted and eroded. Water dissolved the borates and carried them to the Death Valley floor, where they recrystallized as borax. Borax is used in fiberglass, welding flux, insecticides and fungicides, corrugated cardboard, soap and detergents, and fire retardant.
In 1881 borax was found near Furnace Creek. Rights to the claim (and the nearby water, necessary for processing) were sold to William Tell Coleman, who built the Harmony borax works in 1883. Borax was mined at this site until 1888. Chinese workmen gathered the ore.
Extracting and processing the borax was a relatively straightforward operation, and the thorniest issue the mining company faced was how to get its product to market. The answer was supplied by the twenty mule team--whose image lives on in Western lore despite being in use only six years (1883-1889)--to haul the ore 165 miles to the railhead in Mojave, California. Its fame is due primarily to a successful advertising campaign which promoted 20-Mule-Team Borax Soap and a long-running radio and television program, “Death Valley Days.”
The twenty mule teams could pull loads weighing up to 36 tons, including 1,200 gallons of drinking water. The entire unit with mules was more than 100 feet long.
In 1884 a steam tractor replaced the twenty mule teams, and this in turn was replaced by the Borate and Daggett railroad. Salt marsh operations such as those at Harmony were obsolete by 1890. The underground Billie Mine, which closed in 2005, was the last borax mining operation in the Death Valley area.
Left: One of the original wagons and water tank for the twenty mule teams. Right: Steam tractor introduced in 1894 to replace the twenty mule teams. It was in turn replaced by the Borate and Daggett Railroad.