The most famous of the valley's mines had nothing to do with precious metals like gold or silver, but with a rather common commodity most people associate with hand soap. This is borax — technically known as sodium tetraborate decahydrate — and the mine was the Sterling, in a place called Tick Canyon.
Before the Civil War, borax was imported for use in glass-blowing and refining gold. In 1856, deposits were found north of San Francisco. Eight years later the Borax Company of California began operations.
Borax had become useful as a flux in making iron and steel when, in 1881, Francis M. "Borax" Smith discovered acres of the mineral in Nevada. Between 1883 and 1889, twenty million pounds of borax were hauled to the railhead at Mojave by the famous twenty-mule teams. Smith formed the Pacific Coast Borax Company in 1890 and bought up every claim in sight.
One of Smith's employees was a clerk in the Chicago office named Thomas Thorkildson. In 1897 Thorkildson decided he would never get rich working for someone else, so he quit his job and left for California to prospect for borax. He found it near Frazier Park. In an ironic twist of fate, he hired an old supervisor, Steven Mather, to help him run the claim.
In the spring of 1905 two grizzled prospectors trudged up Tick Canyon looking for gold. Henry Shepard and Louis Ebbenger found, instead, a rich deposit of borax. Hightailing it up to Frazier Park, the men sold their claim to Thorkildson and Mather for thirty thousand dollars. The Sterling Borax Works was formed and the operation began producing in 1908.
A large mill was constructed to the north of what is now Davenport Road, while a narrow-gauge train line took a small "dinky"-type engine six miles down the canyon to Lang Station. There was no way for the locomotive to turn around, so after steaming in forward gear to the railhead, it would have to chug back up to the mill in reverse.
The rail line was built in 1905 by the Vulcan Company for Henry M. Witney, who sold it to Thorkildson five years later. "Sterling Number 2" hauled borax for nearly seventy years until it was finally scrapped. Sadly, the train now rests atop a dump at Ryan, Nevada.
The mining camp, located below Davenport, featured a boarding house, offices, company store, a dozen residences, corral and warehouses. It was called Lang and really did not amount to much. A string of identical board-and-batten houses faced the railroad tracks, which ran down what might be called the main street.
At best, the Sterling was never a truly big producer, especially when compared to Teel's Marsh in Nevada or the works at Boron. At its peak, eighteen to twenty thousand tons of marketable borax came out of the ground in a year, generating an income of roughly half a million dollars.
Into the picture came "Borax" Smith with an offer the partners could not refuse. Borax Consolidated bought the Sterling in 1911 for $1.8 million, but it ran as a separate entity, keeping Thorkildson as president of the division, with Mather as vice president. Smith went bankrupt three years later, and his holdings eventually became part of U.S. Borax — the company which until recently still featured twenty-mule teams on its products and coincidentally moved its corporate headquarters to Valencia.
The mines of Tick Canyon petered out and the equipment was transferred to Ryan, Nevada in 1921. Within four years Lang was a ghost camp, destroyed by wind, rain, vandalism and fire. Steven Mather went on to become the first director of the National Park Service. Thomas Thorkildson, born in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, the son of a Norwegian lumberjack, "lived it up" in Los Angeles as the "Borax King" for a while — until his money, like his mine, ran dry. He died in 1950 at the age of eighty-one in a La Crescenta nursing home. The King was, in the end, alone and penniless.