Memories of Old Borate
by William H. Smitheram

Page: 1, 2, 3    

Our house became like a bake oven during the hot summer months and we slept out doors at night. We decided to live during the hottest period at a place called Round Rock. This was down the canyon and a few hundred yards along the main railroad track. Alongside a massive volcanic rock was a small cottage, and at its rear was an adit running about thirty feet into the hillside. An airshaft had been sunk from the hilltop directly into this tunnel and that is where our family had its sleeping quarters. It was the coolest place in the entire camp.

Smitheram summer cottage at Round Rock, Borate, 1903.
William H. Smitheram collection


Will was at the mines twelve hours a day and sometimes I felt lonely and deserted. The engineer on the ore train, Ed Roach, always stopped daily in front of the cottage on the morning haul into Marion, and threw off a supply of scrap lumber. It was my chore to cut up the scrap lumber into kindling for my cook stove. He also delivered a barrel of water when needed. His brother, John Roach, was the foreman of the roaster mill at Marion, situated on the desert flats near Daggett. Other engineers on the ore train were Jerome Connelly and Enyon Timmons.

Several of the Cornish miners retained their speech mannerisms which were always amusing to me. They called tea leaves "Brownshans" and coffee dregs were "Grishans." There was no hard liquor available in Borate but sometimes the miners brought in their own ale. If one became tipsy he was said to be "Tadly Odly." If a man was helped into camp, unable to walk straight, he was "Prilled" (intoxicated). The miners often made a New Years drink called a milk punch. It was boiled condensed milk, brandy, and orange or lemon rind. Another favorite was called a mahogany, made with three parts gin and one of treacle.

We depended on many home remedies for common ailments. I had no experience in relieving childhood colic and fever until an old Cornish miner advised that rhubarb brandy would cure the problem. He brought in some rhubarb from Daggett and proceeded to boil it into a mush consistency, added a cup of gin and another of wine, and then strained it all through a cloth. When cool, the liquid was given in small amounts and within a few hours fever and coughing was contained.

The nearest doctor was located in Barstow. If one had an infected tooth needing extraction, he usually held whisky in his mouth as he rode the first train out of Daggett into Barstow or even to San Bernardino where care could be found. Sometimes a worker would become injured accidentally - a crushed finger, a fractured wrist or a broken arm.

Borate & Daggett Railroad with ore cars on high trestle, 1903.
Trestle was about 2 miles west of Borate.
William H. Smitheram collection


I recall only one time that an accidental death happened, that of a young miner, Dave Jenkins. The powder team, three workers, was setting dynamite fuses in holes in a stope preparing it for blasting. Jenkins was inspecting the work when the powder suddenly exploded, and he was crushed by falling rock. A man was dispatched to Daggett to telegraph the coroner, John Keating, in San Bernardino. However, the coroner did not arrive in Borate until the third day. The poor victim had been laid out on a sheet of corrugated tin in an abandoned tunnel. The inquest was held in the boarding house and that same day the body was taken to Calico for burial.

Shortly after we arrived in Borate an amusing incident occurred. I was a witness to the beginning of the tale and the ending was related to me by Jerome Connelly, an engineer on the Borate and Daggett Railroad. It concerns two young miners who left their jobs in a rush after the explosion of a water barrel. It was the custom of the miners to maintain a barrel of water just inside the tunnel where work was being done. The water was used to wash their hands after handling explosives. After several months the water barrel became thick with mud.

On this particular day, Charlie Williams and Jack Delameter had washed their hands when another miner put his candle out by dipping the tip into the water barrel. As soon as the fire touched the water there was a heavy, loud explosion. The two men were not injured, but were covered with thick, dripping mud. Enough nitroglycerin to cause the explosion had washed off the hands of many men and collected on top of the water. We were all laughing at the sight of the frustrated young miners as they walked to the bunk house to clean up. The two decided to quit and go where they could work without getting a mud bath. They collected their pay and packed up their belongings. Jack owned what was called a telescope valise, which was composed of two parts, a top and bottom. The top lid fit tightly down over the bottom half and the valise was held together with leather straps.

They had barely assembled their few belongings when the shrill blast of the engine whistle announced the departure of the ore train. They ran for the tool car attached to the rear of the borax train where they had been given permission to ride. A few miles from camp Jack discovered he had forgotten to strap the two pieces of his valise together, and had only the empty top half. He had left all his earthly belongings behind in the bunk house. There was nothing he could do about this and his anger increased the more he talked about his calamity. He then drew out his pocket knife and vigorously started cutting the valise into small pieces. He was heard to say, "I may lose my best shirt and pants but I'll save my sweethearts addresses," which he had carefully written on the valise top.

Borate Camp 1903.
Superintendent's house with stairway at far right; under the rock cliff was the boarding house, then a storage room and blacksmith's shop.
Wash Cahill's cabin sits alongside of the track.
In the immediate foreground are the first structures to have been built.
William H. Smitheram collection


Many itinerant miners drifted into Borate seeking work, and if they were qualified, Will found them a place, sometimes for a week or two. One I well remember was "Little Jack," a five foot Cornish miner whose real name was John Kitto. He was a barber and cobbler by trade and a miner when necessary to keep body and soul together. He usually appeared in camp twice a year and headed for our house on arrival. I saved our children's worn out shoes for him as his feet were very small and he never spent money for new shoes. Somehow he repaired the worn out shoes and was as happy as one with a fortune. After I gave him a meal, Will found a few days work for him around the mines - menial jobs, but honest work. He often worked with the ore car gang. Although Will was not prejudicial, he was wary of people. I suppose being around rough miners from all walks of life had attuned his senses. He was very good in determining a man's character when hiring mine workers.

Another miner we came to know well as Marcus Pluth. He often walked into camp asking for temporary work. With several earned dollars he soon went on his way. He was very polite, self educated, and a man with much foresight. He was one of a few individuals who made money from his mining claims around the Mojave Desert. One time he and John Merritt teamed together and located valuable iron claims at Eagle Mountain. They held the claims for a long time and eventually sold them to the Harriman-Kaiser Company. About 1907 Pluth located a rich lime deposit at Alvord Mountain and later sold it for $9,000.00. He died in 1939 and sleeps now in the Daggett cemetery.

The Miner's Recreation Room - 1903.
Stairway leads to the Smith house on the hilltop.
William H. Smitheram collection


One day in the spring of 1906, a fellow came riding up Borate Canyon and was soon recognized as Death Valley Scotty, at that time about 30 years old. He was astride a big black mule and led another black one loaded with camping equipment. Following along was a young burro. Scotty wanted to give the burro to our children for a pet. Will was very reluctant to accept the burro, saying he could not take it on as he had no means to obtain hay or grain for its feed. The children cried when they learned they would not be able to keep the burro. It was very gentle, and since Will had noticed a brand mark on its ear, he was concerned that Scotty may have picked it up as a stray on his way out to the desert.

Will never fully trusted Scotty although he treated him well and had given him water and canned goods on past occasions. Some weeks later, as it turned out, Will had gone over to the nearby Brunswick mine in the Calico Mountains to investigate a small borax deposit. There were three families living on the site, the men being engaged in working the tailings of the old silver mine dump. The little burro had been left in their care and Will was told Alex Hastings, a Mojave River rancher, had claimed ownership. No one will ever know how Scotty really obtained that burro.

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