Throughout America’s history, there are certain early horse-drawn vehicles that have attained a legendary status… even among the general public. Examples include Wells Fargo’s Concord Coaches, the big hitch wagons (along with the Clydesdales) of Anheuser-Busch, and the 20 Mule Team Borax wagons. All are well entrenched symbols of renowned American brands.
Among those of the largest physical proportions are the 20 Mule Team Borax wagons. Not only did the entire long-line team and wagon train stretch over 100 feet in length but the wagons, themselves, are substantial in size. In other words, they’re big… correction, they’re huge, massive, colossal, and any other oversized adjective you’d like to apply.
Built for the ultra-harsh demands of the raw California desert known as Death Valley, these wagons were used from 1883-1888 to haul tens of thousands of pounds of borax over mile after mile of isolated, desolate and forbidding terrain. Modern travelers within this amazing landscape typically enjoy the comforts of air conditioning and a paved road. Yet, within the deceptive beauty of the place, there is a reminder that the environment still demands respect. During our trip, the wind blew constantly. Sand pelted our car, faces and bodies. There were places where small sand dunes were in the process of reclaiming the highway. Mile after rugged mile, this region was equally deceptive as to the wealth it held during the days of the forty-niners.
According to the book, “The Twenty Mule Team of Death Valley,” gold rush pioneers struggling to make it through this area as they moved farther west, often referred to the region as ‘the dregs of creation.’ They were completely oblivious to the fortune in borax beneath their feet. The Death Valley find was reported by the Scientific American in 1873 but, it would be another decade before extraction of this particular ‘white gold’ began in earnest. Since no rail lines were close, it was decided that a mule train of large wagons would need to be created to deliver the precious minerals 165 miles one way to the rails.
Up close, these wagons easily dwarf the human body while standing as huge reminders of just how big the spirit of the west was (and is)… not to mention the heart of the animals responsible for pulling these loads. The rear wheels of the lead wagons tower a full 7 feet in height with 1 inch thick steel tires stretching 8 inches in width. Spokes are over 2 feet in length and the circumference around the spoke bands is 4 ½ feet! The brake blocks are equally impressive with measurements of 8 inches wide and 43 inches in length. The box widths ranged between 44 and 48 inches. Coupled with a 6 foot box height and a 16 foot box length, these vehicles weighed nearly 4 tons standing empty.
Enjoying early and large vehicle history as I do, these historic sets of wheels are a sight to behold. Like so many of these giant workhorses from the 19th century, they are but shells of their former selves. The sun, wind and weather attack them incessantly. Without further protection, they will one day succumb to the beatings. I count it a privilege to have been able to be so close to such a powerful symbol of our nation’s heritage. Today, borax is still a vital material with a wealth of uses. Areas like cosmetics, medicines, detergents, ceramics, plastics, fire retardants, flux, food additives, putty, insulation, water softeners, indelible ink, swimming pool maintenance, blacksmithing, moth-proofing wool, and even products designed to help stop radiator leaks all lean on the strength of borax. It’s a product with countless uses and continues to play a significant role in life everywhere. Ultimately, the story of the 20 Mule Team and Borax wagons is a testimony to the can-do spirit that built this land and a reminder of the value of freedom, the richness of our nation, and benefits of our free enterprise system.