One hundred years ago, at the turn of the last century, the West was a popular subject in newspapers, dime novels and in the newly-invented cinema. But little was known about the real West. Most of what people knew of the West was invented by easterners who had never been there. Writers would take the most dramatic tidbits of information and exaggerate events and stories beyond all reconition.
And perhaps no place fell victim to such misinformation as did the valley named "Death." The New York World described it in 1894 as "the pit of horrors, the haunt of all that's grim and ghoulish." But it wasn't enough to talk about Death Valley, California, U.S. anything that came out of Death Valley or worked in Death Valley or traveled through Death Valley was fair game. Like twenty mule team borax teamsters. In 1896 the Baltimore Independent declared:
"The deadliest occupation for men or horses is teaming in the boraxfields of Death Valley. ... Forty to sixty horses are often hitched to one of the lumbering vehicles in which the borax is slowly dragged across the sun-baked alkali plains. The average life of even the sturdiest horses used in this work is six months, for in this length of time they either become broken-winded ... or are driven crazy by the frightful heat."
In 1904 the St. Louis Globe Dispatch described the exploits of famed teamster "Borax" Bill Parkinson:
"While teaming in Death Valley it was a common experience to meet shrieking maniacs who had been crazed by heat and thirst. ... Indians, outlawed whites, strange and venomous reptiles disputed his progress and his guiding trailmarks were human skulls and sun-bleached skeletons. ... All the world is interested in anything that comes from Death Valley, the most dreadful spot on Earth."
(Amazingly, during this time not a single animal was lost nor did a single wagon break down.)
The Borax company had closed down its Death Valley operations back in 1888. Borax Bill's driving days in Death Valley had ended years earlier. There were horses hitched to the wagons but only two, the 18 others were mules. And the only shrieking maniac a teamster might have to worry about after 20 tough days of desert travel was his assistant, the swamper. Inaccurate as much of it was, it certainly made good reading on a Sunday afternoon in the parlors of America. After all, the more horrific Death Valley seemed, the more heroic the borax men became. The more press they received, the more likely a housewife was to pay eleven cents for a box of 20 Mule Team® Borax.
So what was it like to haul borax from Death Valley? From 1883 to 1888 there was a successful borax operation in Death Valley owned by William T. Coleman. When it began in 1883, the borax was hauled out by eight and 12 mule teams to the railroad terminal at Daggett near Barstow in the Californian desert. In 1884, the route was changed to Mojave, larger wagons were built and longer teams hitched to them in order to haul out more ore for a more efficient operation. But few details about that route survive from the original twenty mule team drivers. And there may be good reason for that. They may not have thought they were doing anything out of the ordinary. Sure it was a long, tough route, over some difficult desert terrain, but it was their job to drive wagons and most had driven in other places all over the West.
The few details we have of the Death Valley trail are from Ed Stiles, who hauled on the Daggett route. Stiles, who lived on until the 1940s, recalled that the journey from the Harmony Borax Works in Death Valley would begin at sunrise. By noon, they would stop and feed the mules and water them as they stood in their harnesses. The trip would continue until sunset when the team would have traveled about 17 miles. Sometimes the team traveled at night or early morning to avoid the worst of the daytime heat, as Stiles recalls:
"One of my big chores was to keep a close watch on 80 hoofs. When any of them needed attention, we turned out at one o'clock in the morning and got an early start. Then, after we had covered our distance for that day, I still had three or four hours of daylight left to do some shoeing."
And there were other kinds of tough times. Stiles also remembers the time when a cloudburst in the mountains sent torrents of water into the Valley. It made the Valley floor so mushy that his wagons sunk in the mud up lo their hubs. He had to unhook the mules and pull the two rear wagons backward and clear of the one that was stuck. Then 15,000 pounds of borax had to be unloadecl and pulled out of the mire by the mules. That event slowed him down by just one day.
For the most part, however, the operation ran smoothly. A teamster would haul out of Mojave, California with food and supplies which were dropped off at camps along the desert route. The team would then arrive at Harmony in the middle of Death Valley, turn around and haul a load of borax back to Mojave. By 3:00 p.m. on the 20th day, the team would have completed a round trip journey to a remarkably precise timetable.
Five teams hauled on this schedule for five years. Far from a wild and woolly ride, the journey of the twenty mule teams, though challenging at times, was a technological achievement designed to address the neecls of industry. The men who drove the teams were not heroes of epic proportions, but everyday heroes who made the wheels of wagons, trucks and commerce turn smoothly and efficiently.