By Mark Bergmann
I remember those TV commercials for 20 Mule Team Borax detergent in the 1960s but never really gave any thought as to why anyone would need twenty mules to pull two wagons and a water tank. Turns out, when those wagons were full of borax, they weighed 36 tons. Plus, they had to carry 1,200 gallons of water if they wanted the mules (and humans) to be alive at the end of the 165 miles from Death Valley to the railroad in Mojave.
William T. Coleman of San Francisco consolidated borax mining operations in Death Valley during the 1880s. We visited the Harmony Borax works where borax was refined and then shipped by the mule teams. Borax “mining” did not mean digging underground, just scraping the borax salt off the ancient lake bed.
Talk about minimum wage….Chinese workers scraped borax off the salt flats for $1.30 PER DAY minus lodging and food.