Trails & Rails In Death Valley
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As we crossed the Arizona-California state line and neared the Calico Mountains, colored booklets were dropped in out laps, telling of the gold, silver and great borate deposits to be found in this range. Our guide told us that with luck we might see the twenty-mule team or the steam wagon, which had just entered service, hauling borax into Daggett. The borax traveled from Daggett by rail to Alameda, Calif., where it was refined and shipped to all parts of the world. And the man was right. When we reached Daggett, we watched the steam wagon roll in from the desert, pulling two huge vehicles loaded with borax. The guide then had his reward for we all bought pictures of the contrivance from him.

All sorts of memories came back to me as I listened to the radio that night. I recalled many scenes I had witnessed in the growth of Death Valley transportation. It was a history written with the vigor and blood of pioneers, something not likely to be forgotten by anyone who has lived even a small part of it. I decided then that if I could get permission from the borax company and the editors of Railroad Magazine, I would write it up. The next day I was just as determined.
 

William Washington Cahill gave me to go-ahead sign for the Pacific Coast Borax Company. He was friendly and more than interested in the idea. Reminiscing about the old days, he told me his own story. As a young man, in spite of his good education, he had started out in the company as a helper on a mule team. Reporting in a Daggett with a load of borax one day, his signature drew quite a reaction from the man behind the desk. "Any man who can write a hand like that has no business behind a mule team", he said -- and Cahill rode the mules no more. Now he handles the transportation problems for this large company. I soon left his office with permission for my story. This is it.


From the start the wealth of borax centered around Death Valley. It might well have still laid there undeveloped but for the endurance and acumen of the mule. Maybe you think mules don't belong in a railroad story, yet it was these brush-tailed tugs of the desert that made the iron pike possible. The tonnage of borax they carted opened up a new industry and wealth in a land of arid hills and sand. Steel rails followed the mule's trail.

When borax was discovered in 1880 by Aaron and Rosie Winters in the shadow of the funeral Range, it was the first real strike of the Valley. The hunt for gold and silver mines had gone on for thirty years with little success. Now it was all forgotten. Here lay a chemical ready for taking and shipping to a waiting market. Once there, and a claim staked, there was almost an unanswerable problem, however. How was borax to be carried out of the Valley. Death Valley, named by the survivors of a band of emigrants trapped there in 1849, could be reached only over almost impassible mountains, through beds of soft sand, with exposure to blistering sun without hope of shade. Work would have to be done at altitudes ranging from 100 to 200 feet below sea level, where temperature rose higher than 130 degrees. It was a land where birds fell dead in flight, where men slept in streams with stones to keep their heads above water. It was a place of thirst and madness. Yet, the cantankerous but intelligent mule and the hardy driver proved the solution to the problem of transportation and the term "20-Mule Team" became synonymous with Borax.

Working conditions of the first Death Valley trains challenged the strength and perseverance of teams and their drivers. Life was literally burnt out of some of them. The desert air, heated as it passed over mountains eight to ten thousand feet high, was dried to a humidity of less than one percent and yet science sates that less than forty percent at that temperature is dangerous to human life. Such climate is fit for no animal higher than reptiles, yet for those men who dies there, other were willing to fill in the gap.
 

Men died with full canteens in their possession, but the tracks of the mule team cut steadily deeper into the rust of the sand. If they hadn't, there would be no more than a beginning to my story. Over stretches where springs lay fifty miles apart, borax was draw up through narrow crack in the mountains that were the only roads. The roadbed was as hard as a turnpike and round those curves death might come easy. It took ten days to get a mule team from the borate mines to the railroad, for twenty miles a day with no load was a record.

The "train" consisted of two 8,000 pound wagons carrying ten tons of borax apiece and a water wagon holding 1,200 gallons. Harnessed two abreast, on a chain that stretched a hundred feet, ten husky teams pulled the load. To operate the train, a jerk-line extended from the hand of the driver through the line harness to one of the leaders.
 


Puzzle: Find the 19th and 20th mule!
 

The response to the driver's signals was almost human. Passing around the mountain curves, lead mules would be out of sight of the driver for minutes at a time, while the wagons slowly rounded the turns. These were points where the road ran along the brink of cliffs, where the arc was so sharp that the outside mules had to perform a remarkable animal trick to stay alive. Imagine, if you can, a team on an upgrade curve, its chains drawn tight as an iron bar and the driver behind on the other side of the mountain. Each mule has its own name and at a call from the driver, lifts his legs carefully over the iron chain. Now on the other side, he and his mate pull with all their combined strength at right angles -- that is away from the hillside -- so the chain takes the same curve as the road to prevent wagons from running into the banks. Then as soon as the grade is surmounted, the mules will hop back to their own side of the chain and continue in a regular manner until the driver's next call.

Desert hauls were divided into divisions about sixteen miles long. At each division terminal there was a shop, the mule-team roundhouse. Here wagon axles were greased, tires reset, brakes adjusted, harnesses repaired and sore shoulders doctored. This work was done by "desert rats", men accustomed to working, eating and sleeping out-of-doors winter and summer. Meals were cooked over open fires and then the men rolled up in blankets for the night's rest.
 

The fellows who trained and drove the animals were expert mule "skinners" from necessity. There would be too much risk with a raw-hide. "Borax Bill" Parkinson [left] and Ed Stiles [right] were two of the more famous drivers and Bill's face, handle-bar mustache and all, can still be seen in the display advertisements of the Pacific Coast Borax Company.
 
Drivers of ten horse teams often manage alone. But in freighting across the desert with a twenty animal team, every driver had an assistant called a swamper. He was a many of many talents and duties. Going downhill, the swamper applied the brake to check the speed; at night, he prepared the food for the animals and the driver. But not least of all, he earned his keep as a prod for the mules. When he couldn't coax them up the hills reasonably, he quickened their steps by throwing stones at them.
 
For fifteen years the twenty-mule team made history. That Death Valley period from 1880-95 was perhaps the most remarkable in American transportation. But as the demand for borax products grew, some means to increase the speed of the borax train had to be found.

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11/11/2009