The Borax Museum
Date Grove Rd
Furnace Creek, CA 92328
Thursday – Monday: 11AM-6PM
with entrance to National Park
The Borax Museum is a relatively small collection of mining artifacts, borax products, and local history housed in one of the oldest structures in Death Valley National Park. Along with displays of picks, pans, soap flakes, and arrow heads is an outdoor collection of mining and other industrial equipment used across Death Valley at the turn of the century.
Mining in Death Valley
Rumors of the Lost Gunight Mine,* an outcropping of rich silver ore encountered by Jim Martin—a Georgian traveling to California—launched one of the largest prospecting booms in the mid 1880s. While the pure silver ledge was never discovered, many other deposits in Death Valley sustained mining in the region for decades. Discoveries of silver in the Panamints, silver and lead in Darwin, as well as gold and silver in Keeler and the Calicos sustained mining activity in the late 1800s.
The relatively slow pace of the 1800s heated up at the turn of the century as gold discoveries transmuted Tonopah, Goldfield, Bullfrog, and Skidoo from empty desert to boomtowns. Booms, busts, and scams fill the mining history of Death Valley. Though, a few stand outs such as Skidoo Mine and Keane Wonder Mine remain well known even today. Yet mining precious metals was only the beginning for Death Valley.
Borax Mining in Death Valley
Unlike the mythical lost mines of Death Valley, there is one sure thing for miners in the area: borax. While gold and silver bring the miners to the valley, it is borax that makes fortunes.
The ancient lake bed of Lake Manly is rich in the white crystalline ulexite known as “cottonball.” While Daunet, a failed gold prospector, is the first known to attempt marketing the cottonball in 1875 he is consistently unsuccessful. Such is not the case of Aaron and his wife Rosie Winters, six years later. By 1881, interest in the white salt is on the rise and after a chance encounter with a traveling prospector introducing them to the mineral, the Winters knew that they knew where to find acres more not far from their home in Ash Meadows. The Winters sell their acres of cottonball to San Francisco financier, William T. Coleman for $20,000. The winters are rich and Coleman is set for a legendary venture. In 1882, Coleman builds the Harmony Borax Works near his cottonball deposit, for easy processing before shipping. The operation refines borax for five years and introduces the 20 Mule Team to Death Valley.
Yet, at the same time in 1882, a new form of borax is discovered along Furnace Creek Wash by the Lee brothers. It is named after Coleman: colemite. While this quartz type deposit requires a more complex mining process, it was far richer than cottonball. While Coleman acquires the deposits, he does not have the opportunity to develop them. Financial troubles in 1888 lead him to close down the Harmony Borax works and eventually sell all his holdings to Francis Marion “Borax” Smith for $550,000. With this sale, Smith has a monopoly on borax that he consolidates into the Pacific Coast Borax Company. A name that becomes synonymous with 20 Mule Teams and household cleanliness.
About Those 20 Mule Teams
Between 1883 and 1888, twenty mule teams transported 12-million pounds of borax from Death Valley deposits to the railroad in Mojave. Though, those 20-mule teams are originally 18 mules with 2 draft horses in the lead. The driver uses a “jerkline” to signal a left turn with a steady pull on the rope and a right turn with a series of sharp jerks to the lead animals 120-feet away. The team pulls 16-foot long and 6-foot deep wagons with 8 inch-wide steel wheels. The complete load weighs in at 36.5 tons including a water tank. In the desert, with little water along the way, that water tank is critical. The 165-mile trip takes ten days to cover, after all. These teams remain in operation until 1895, when the Borate & Dagget Railroad was built to cover the distance. Yet, the 20 Mule Team remains commemorated in the logo of the Pacific Coast Borax Company.
Visiting The Borax Museum
While a relatively small museum, The Borax Museum’s collection of indoor mining artifacts and outdoor equipment yard is rich in history. The museum—in 1883 as an office, bunkhouse, and ore checking station for the Pacific Coast Borax Company—was moved to its present location in Furnace Creek from Twenty Mule Team Canyon. The walls of the historic wooden structure are lined with mining picks, shovels, drills, pans, and extensive descriptions of mining in Death Valley.
The collection touches on various artifacts collected from Death Valley: Shoshone arrow heads and woven baskets, cast iron cooking equipment from miners’ camps, mineral samples, and stagecoach bells. Of course, the core focus is mining. And, while the museum features regional mining exhibits, including gold and silver history, it focuses on borax, the most profitable mineral mined in Death Valley. Old packages of 20 Mule Team Borax Soap Chips, models of the 20 Mule Team, samples of cottonball borax, and one of two original wagons from the 20 Mule Teams used to transport dehydrated borax across the desert are all part of the museum’s core collection.
The Borax Museum Equipment Yard
Behind the museum is an extensive collection of turn of the century equipment used in the valley. An ore cart, locomotive, stage coaches, and other mining or farming equipment all sit under the brutal Death Valley sun.
*This is one of many legendary “lost” gold and silver mines. Another in the area traces its origins to when Charles C. Breyfogle was lost in in Death Valley and returned to his prospecting party with rich gold ore and no memories of its origin. The Lost Breygofle Mine joined the mythical ranks of Death Valley mining lore.