The Borate & Daggett Railroad,
Forerunner of the Tonopah & Tidewater
by Delmer G. Ross
Professor of History
La Sierra University, Riverside, CA 92515

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Although the Tonopah & Tidewater and Borate & Daggett railroads did not connect - indeed, could not connect because the B&D was a narrow-gauge line and the T&T used standard gauge - they were very closely related. The B&D was the precursor of the T&T. Without the successful B&D, there might never have been a T&T.

Calico, a silver-mining community located at the foot of barren mountains in the Mojave Desert some ten miles northeast of Barstow, was a very busy place in the early 1880s. Among its businessmen, mine employees, and others, were many prospectors who hoped to find their own mines. In 1882, while prospecting for promising outcrops of silver ore in the hills five miles east of town, two of these, Hugh B. Stevens and Bill Neel, located what turned out to be a major deposit of calcium borate, a quartz-like borax ore known as colemanite.

While colemanite had been first discovered only one year earlier, borax was well known. It was a valuable commodity, selling wholesale for 15 cents or more per pound after refining. It therefore was only natural for the prospectors and miners at Calico to be interested in the find. They soon rushed out to try their luck at locating and staking borax claims. Because as yet little was known about colemanite, many simply erected monuments as claim markers wherever they thought there was a chance of ore. Having covered the nearby hills with claims, they returned to town and their livelihoods before the rush, all the while hoping some wealthy borax magnate would appear to offer them a fortune for what they had staked.

Although most of the borax "prospectors" from Calico were to be disappointed, a number of their wild-cat claims proved to be of value. William Tell Coleman, of the San Francisco distribution agency of William T. Coleman & Company and for whom colemanite was named, soon purchased those showing promise. He planned to develop them so as to supplement his company's existing borax properties in the Death Valley area, all of which were very expensive to operate.

Financial reverses drove Coleman to bankruptcy in 1888. The well known borax entrepreneur, Francis Marion "Borax" Smith, then bought the borax properties Coleman had once held. He soon consolidated his previous and newly acquired holdings in a new corporation called the Pacific Coast Borax Company. Smith also started concentrating much of the company's mining activity at Borate, the name soon given to the location of the recently discovered colemanite deposits in the Calico Mountains.

Francis Marion "Borax" Smith, founder of the Pacific Coast Borax Company, and builder of the Borate & Dagget and Tonopah & Tidewater.
Courtesy U.S. Borax.

A major advantage of the new location was the proximity of the town of Daggett, initially known as Calico Junction, only a dozen miles to the southwest. Daggett was served by the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad. Transporting ore from mines at Borate to processing plants would be far less costly than it had been from the Death Valley region, some 135 miles away.

At first, all ore was transported in much the same way as it had been from Death Valley - by twenty-mule teams pulling two specially built, heavy wagons, each carrying ten to eleven tons of ore. The road, though, left much to be desired. A contemporary author described it as having "more crooks and pitches than the streak of chain lightning." Such a road could be improved, of course, and this one was.

A twenty-mule team hired by PCB pauses for a brief rest in Mule Canyon under the watchful eye of teamster "Charles" Sedwick White.
Alf Collection, Mojave River Valley Museum.

Even after improvements, a single round trip required a day and a half. Smith regarded this as too slow. In 1894 he sought to modernize by acquiring a steam tractor. Bought from the Diamond Best Co. of San Leandro, it was a 110-horsepower, coal-burning machine that could easily tow as much as did twenty mules. Unfortunately, the tractor, soon dubbed "Old Dinah," broke down altogether too often. Mule teams had to be kept standing by. After a year or so, Old Dinah was retired to storage. The more reliable teams once more did the honors.

So many mules were employed hauling ore to the railroad and timber to the mines that the winding canyon leading toward the mining operation at the growing community of Borate soon came to be termed Mule Canyon. The name has survived to the present.

The motive power in those early years was not provided by mules alone, nor was it all company-owned. For example, Seymour Alf, of Daggett, built two ore wagons and contracted to haul colemanite from Borate to the A&P. Although he appears to have used a few mules, Alf's teams consisted mainly of horses. He did, however, lease mule teams to the borax company.

Camp Rock, in Mule Canyon, before the arrival of the Borate & Daggett. Thirsty teams are being watered at a trough near the tank wagon at the left.
Petroff Collection, Mojaver River Valley Museum.

Borate was a company town. Tucked into a little canyon on the northeast slope of the Calico Mountains, it was never very large. It consisted of a number of houses, at least one dormitory or bunkhouse, a combined store and post office, various mining-related structures, and a "reading room" where miners could relax when not at work. Its population occasionally approached 200, mainly single men. There was no saloon, gambling establishment, nor "red-light district." The reading room, adjacent to the store, offered the sole company-approved after-hours entertainment.

The construction of one of the residences was unique. A frame structure used mainly by Borax Smith and other important visitors, it was perched on an eminence above the canyon. While this gave visitors a panoramic view, it also exposed the house to periodic buffeting by the high winds that plague the area. In order to prevent the structure from being blown away, it was necessary to anchor it by chains and cables to heavy timbers buried deep in the soil.

The little community of Borate, a company camp. The tracks curving to the right lead to Marion and Daggett. The prominent structure on the hill to the right was Smith's house. It was later moved to Ludlow.
Cahill/Clooney Collection, Mojave River Valley Museum.

Despite the availability of well constructed wood-frame company housing, many miners preferred to live in dugouts they carved in the sides of canyons and hills. As might have been expected on the Mojave Desert, frame structures were very hot during the height of summer. Moreover, despite heating stoves, they tended to be drafty and cold in the winter, especially at night. Dugouts were usually more comfortable. Most were just single- or two-man affairs, but one, which was still usable as recently as the 1970s, was large enough for eight men. As recently as 1992 some of the smaller dugouts seemed almost as good as new. None remain so today. In an apparent effort to reduce danger and possible liability, U.S. Borax, the present successor to Pacific Coast Borax, had entrances to the mines and other below-ground facilities bulldozed closed.

No water was available at Borate. It had to be hauled in from Daggett or Marion. Furthermore, the mines required an uncommonly large amount of timbering, all of which had to be brought in from elsewhere. While hauling mining supplies by wagon was not an unusual requirement in the Mojave, transporting water and heavy mine timbers that way was expensive.

Another view of Borate, nestled in the rather limited confines of Big Borate Canyon.
Cahill/Clooney Collection, Mojave River Valley Museum.

Although the mining operation at Borate ran smoothly during the mid-1890s, Borax Smith continued to deplore the high cost of hauling ore to Daggett. The usual rate was $2.50 per ton - one-eighth of a cent per pound. Considering that it required a day and a half for each round trip, that price could hardly be termed excessive. Just the same, he kept looking for ways to reduce both time and expense.

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