Memories of Old Borate
by William H. Smitheram

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At least once a year, Francis Marion Smith (Borax Smith) came to Borate on an inspection tour. He stayed in a cottage on the hill top just above the main section of the mining camp, the dwelling being somewhat spacious and insulated. I recall that the corner roof points were tied into concrete pillars by strong wire cables. This was necessary as frequent gale force winds blew in from the desert. Will and Borax Smith got along very well together, and many times sat up until morning hours at our house discussing mining problems.

Smith appeared to me to have a strong facial resemblance to Theodore Roosevelt with his glasses, mustache and hair style. He had consolidated all his holdings in 1890 into the Pacific Coast Borax Company and soon assumed the Twenty Mule Team as a trademark. In 1898 he built the Borate and Daggett Railroad from Borate into Daggett, on the main line of the Santa Fe Railroad.

The following year Smith and his English friends desired to acquire new sources of borax and outlets for their products. They formed an organization called Borax Consolidated, Ltd. and Smith became managing director in America.

Whenever Smith was at our house I gave him tea and corn bread, his favorite, and he never failed to say, "Tis the best in the West." He usually had his meals at the boarding house and I was told that he was very particular in that he insisted his eggs be cooked to perfection and his pancakes be dollar bite size. There was usually a Chinese cook at the boarding house but on one occasion the cook was a man named Hardcastle. After Smith had left, the cook was heard to have exclaimed, "Good God Almighty, he's gone at last.".

Borate in 1903, Company store and post office at far right;
boarding house at far left; "Borax" Smith's cottage on hilltop.
William H. Smitheram collection


Smith was an excellent story teller and I have since forgotten many of his tales. However, a laughable one has stuck in my mind. It concerns a burro that was owned by a desert prospector, Shorty Harris. He noticed one night that his burro seemed kind of sickly, so he gave him a bucket of water, cold out of a spring. The burro took a sip and let out a moan like a squaw with a belly ache. At supper time Harris gave him a hot flap jack and the burro held it in his mouth for several minutes before he swallowed it. Later on the burro was found drinking some warm water Harris had set aside to wash up with. All of a sudden Harris realized the burro had a tooth ache. The next morning the burro had disappeared. About two days later it showed up as full of ginger as a burro can get, and no more tooth ache. The burro walked right up to Harris, opened his mouth, and let out a terrific bray, and there in the tooth was a gold filling. Harris spent a month looking for the ledge that contained the gold but never found it. 'Yes, a far fetched amusing story, perhaps one that has not faded away in the desert heat."

In 1904, Borax Smith approved a plan to send the Twenty Mule Team around the country to visit cities on an advertising and publicity tour. The first appearance was at the St. Louis World's Fair that year. Ed Stiles, one of the original team drivers, trained the mules and drove the team. Bob Wilson, another original teamster, also drove the team on the tour. On and off for many years the Twenty Mule Team was called out for festive and important occasions such as President Wilson's inauguration in 1917, and often in the Pasadena Rose Parade.

"Arbor Villa," estate of "Borax Smith," Oakland, California, 1915.
Standing left to right: Thomas Cramer (Chief Chemist Pacific Coast Borax Company); John Ryan (General Manager, Pacific Coast
Borax Company); Robert Wilson (Chief Driver, Twenty Mule Team); "Borax Smith" (Founder, Pacific Coast Borax Company).
William H. Smitheram collection


At the time of the San Francisco Exposition in 1915, Smith invited his old time friends and employees to a grand party at his Oakland estate. Will was somewhat reluctant to go, but I persuaded him to do so. Will enjoyed every minute being among so many friends. He often related what an impressive sight it was when the mule team and wagons circled into the estate entrance as a "salute" to Borax Smith. I recall seeing the team in 1924 when it paraded along Broadway in Los Angeles. The team also paraded at the opening of the San Francisco Bay Bridge in 1937. A major tour of the country in 1940 hailed the release of MGM's "Twenty Mule Team" starring Wallace Beery.

In 1913, when we were living at the Lila-C borax mine, we sadly learned that Smith had declared insolvency. His holdings went into a trustee committee in Oakland as he had overextended his capital and defaulted on his notes. He had invested in the transportation system in Oakland and in the ferry service on San Francisco Bay. We knew him as an energetic man who had an abundance of optimism for everything he did. I shall always think of Borax Smith as a very warm-hearted and kind man. On the day of my Will's funeral in 1916 we talked at length of former times, and when he left he handed me his personal check which he insisted I accept. He died in Oakland in August, 1931.


As time progressed, the colemanite ore veins became low grade and difficult to work. The borax deposits at the Lila-C mine near the eastern edge of Death Valley had been developed, and in October, 1907 the Borate mines were shut down. Wash Cahill closed the company store and our little post office closed forever. The Cahill family had been working at Borate since the early 1890s and Wash liked to tell how they received the mail before the railroad was completed in 1898. The Mulcahy family lived at nearby Calico so the Borate miners each paid one dollar per month to their young daughter, Fannie, to ride horseback from Calico to deliver the mail once a week. Since a majority of the Borate miners were unmarried, they all enjoyed the sight of her and the opportunity for conversation.

Will left Borate in October for the Lila-C mines and the children and I packed up our few belongings and within a few days our departure arrived. Our move did not prove completely successful for on the very day we climbed up on a flat car for the ride down to Daggett, a strong desert wind blew into a gale. As the ore train slowly negotiated the steep grades down through Mule Canyon, hot sparks flew backward from the locomotive stack onto its train. When the train emerged from the canyon the bone-dry cabins on several flat cars were burning furiously. By the time the fires were extinguished at Marion, all we were able to save were a few boxes of clothing and cooking utensils and my sewing machine Our table and chairs and beds were a pile of bits and pieces.

All the supplies, machinery, cabins and heavy lumber were moved by rail from Borate to the new location at the Lila-C mine. Alex McLaren was given the contract to salvage everything and supervise the removal. Everything was loaded on narrow gauge flat cars at Borate and hauled on the Borate and Daggett Railroad down the mountain to the intersection with the standard gauge trackage at Marion. Everything was then skidded over to the standard gauge flat cars of the Santa Fe Railroad for movement from Daggett to Ludlow. From there the Tonapah and Tidewater Railroad transported the shipments to the Lila-C mine.

Although our life at Borate seemed uneventful and monotonous, I now reflect on the people who were friendly and charitable. Debts were paid and no violence occurred. Their word was as good as a bond and women were held in high respect. If someone became injured, or died, everyone contributed to a collection for those who remained.

The miners received two days off each year. The Fourth of July was usually celebrated with a baseball game and a pot luck dinner. On Christmas Day everyone banded together for a chicken dinner. Sometimes we sang carols with music supplied by an accordion or violin. We learned that a person is richest whose pleasures are the simplest. St. Patrick's Day was special as the Irish miners and many others celebrated by singing songs after their work shift. Everyone wore a bit of green ribbon on their shirts. One time a young scamp tied a green ribbon on a dog's tail who promptly ran down the canyon waving it. This gesture aroused much indignation among the Irish miners.

Many nationalities were represented over the years, all good workers for the most part: American, Cornish, English, Irish, Welsh, Greek, Dutch, German, French, Italian, Bohemian and Scandinavian. All contributed to the wealth and history of old Borate.

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