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The Borax Twenty-Mule Teams

Updated on February 14, 2019
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Donna Campbell Smith is an author, freelance writer, and photographer. She has an AAS degree in equine tech and is a certified instructor.

Borax Twenty-Mule Team in Death Valley

Borax Twenty Mule Teams

The Pacific Coast Borax Company was founded in the late 1800s. Borax, called the “miracle mineral” in those days, was used in everything from medicines to washing carriages. Today it is used by many industries as an ingredient in cleaning products, cosmetics, the production of glass and ceramics and agricultural products.

In 1881 William T. Coleman filed a claim to hundreds of acres of borax in Death Valley. While the ore was right on the surface of the ground, Coleman had to find a way to transport it out of the valley to his customers by way of the Mojave railroad station.

He and his superintendent hired a muleskinner named Ed Stiles. Stiles came up with the idea of combining two 10-mule teams into one 20-mule hitch. The one hundred foot long team would pull two wagons and a water tank. The total weight was over thirty-six tons.

The route was a grueling 165 miles across rugged mountains and a 50-mile trek across the desert. In summer the temperature sometimes reached 130° F.

The team had to be especially trained for this feat with each mule having a specific job. The two mules in the front were the lead mules. The next ten were called the swing team. They were required to respond to the command “stop” and “pull.” Behind the swing team were three pairs of mules called the pointers, sixes, and eights. These pairs were trained to jump over the eighty-foot long chain connecting the whole team whenever the team had to turn a sharp corner. The mules jumped the chain and pulled at an angle away from the curve to keep the chain going around the curve. The last pair, located just in front of the wagon, was called the wheelers. They were the largest and strongest members of the team, and often were draft horses.

In the Movies and TV

The Borax Twenty Mule Team was truly remarkable, but railroads and new borax fields made their job obsolete after five years of service. They continued to do exhibitions into the turn of the twentieth century including the World’s Fair in 1904 and in various parades. In 1940 a movie was made about them and they traveled from city to city to promote “Twenty Mule Team.” Pacific Coast Borax Company was one of the sponsors for Death Valley Days, a television series of stories about the Old West that ran from 1952 through 1975. A host introduced the programs; one of the hosts was Ronald Regan.

The Pacific Coast Borax Company registered The 20 Mule Team as their trademark in 1894. The team was reformed in the 1980s and continues to perform for special occasions.

One of the most amazing things about the famous Borax Twenty Mule Teams is that in hauling more than twenty million pounds of borax out of Death Valley 165 miles to Mojave over a five-year period not one mule was lost. This record once again can be attributed to the mule’s uncanny ability to take care of itself in the harshest conditions.

Death Valley Days TV Show

© 2019 Donna Campbell Smith


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