Borax Mining at Death Valley

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This page last updated on 02097/2018
2014 Borax Samples
(Fig. 01)
Borax: Borax, a.k.a.sodium borate, sodium tetraborate, or disodium tetraborate, is a very important boron compound. It a mineral and a salt of boric acid and a soft colorless crystal that dissolves easily in water. Originally imported to the United States from Tibet and Italy, Borax has been used for centuries in ceramics and goldsmithing. A physician is credited with first discovering borax crystals in Northern California while testing waters for medicinal properties. However, it wasn't until "cottonball" [a.k.a. ulexite] — a crude ore compound of boron, oxygen, sodium and calcium — was discovered in large quantities that the domestic industry sprang to life. Cottonball lay in shimmering masses on the ancient desert floor and could be harvested with a shovel. The challenge lay in transporting the ore out of the desolate wasteland for processing into a growing array of industrial and household uses. Boric acid, borax and other compounds of boron are used in almost every major industry — and the company is working throughout its worldwide facilities to develop new applications and products every day. Just a few of the modern products that depend on borates are: Glass — including fiberglass insulation, Pyrex, optical lenses, laboratory glassware and art glass; Porcelain enamel — that covers stoves, refrigerators, freezers, bath fixtures and cookware; Ceramics — as an important component of the glaze on pottery, chinaware and tiles; Detergents and soaps — to enhance whitening, brightening or bleaching of laundry products and as an ingredient in many hand soap formulas; Aircraft and automobiles — to keep engines running clean, in antifreeze, brake fluid, and to build lightweight, high-strength structural sections in aircraft; Cosmetics and medicines — for face creams, lotions, dusting powders, ointments, hair products, and eye bath solutions; Building materials — to flameproof and protect lumber, gypsum board, particle board and insulation materials and to protect them from termites, rot and fungi; Flame retardants — to control the burning rate of wood, paper, and plastic products and to flameproof mattresses; Electronics — as a treatment to the silicon that runs diodes, semi-conductors, transistors and micro circuitry; and Agriculture — as a soil micro-nutrient to aid in plant growth and yield. Even today, scientists are still finding new uses for the unique element. Click here for more pictures and info ... Borax Museum at Furnace Creek Ranch.

History of Borax Mining at Death Valley:
Borax changed the history of Death Valley. It brought in an industry; it produced the famous Twenty Mule Teams; and it focused the world’s attention on a great new mineral source, which, unlike the ephemeral gold and silver discoveries, was real. There were no “lost” borax mines. The borax mines of Furnace Creek in the Death Valley region were active for a number of years and were the principal producers of borax in the United States. The deposits in this area are separated into two districts; the Ryan District and the Mt. Blanco District. The Ryan District embraces the Biddy Mine, McCarthy Mine, Widow Mine, Lizzie V Mine, Oakley Mine, Lila C Mine, Played-Out Mine and the Billie Mine. The mines of the Ryan District produced mostly colemanite, often in good crystals. Of the known 100 borate minerals, 25 are found in Death Valley. The collage above (Fig. 01) shows six of the Borax ores found around the mining area of Ryan, UL&UR is Colemanite from Ryan; ML&BR are Veatchite and Colemanite from the Billie Mine; MR&BL are Inyoite and Colemanite from Monte Blanco and Ryan respectively. The primary commercial borate ores were borax, kernite, colemanite and ulexite. The ores mined at Ryan were colemanite and ulexite.
In 1881 Aaron Winters, a prospector who lived in Ash Meadows with his wife, Rosie, offered a night’s lodging to a stranger, Henry Spiller, who was prospecting through the desert. His hospitality was well rewarded. The stranger spoke of the growing interest in the mineral borax and showed him samples of cottonball. One look told Winters that he saw the same crystals every day, covering acre upon acre of the floor of Death Valley. This form of borax was white crystalline ulexite called “cottonball”, which encrusted the ancient lake bed, Lake Manly. The next morning, as soon as his visitor had left, he rode off to the Valley, scooped up a bagful of cottonball and rode back to Ash Meadows. The stranger had told him about the test for borax: pour alcohol and sulfuric acid over the ore and ignite it. If it burns green, it’s borax. At sundown, Aaron and Rosie tried the test on the bagful of sample: “She burns green, Rosie”, shouted Aaron, “We’re rich, by God!” And they were. Winters sold the Death Valley acres he had quickly acquired to William T. Coleman, a prominent San Francisco financier for $20,000, and ended up receiving credit for discovering borax in Death Valley. 
These claims were bought by Coleman in 1883 and patented in 1887. A year later Coleman opened the Harmony Borax Works in Death Valley.  Hiring Chinese laborers to scrape cottonball from the ancient lake bed for $1.50 per day, and finding that summer processing in the Valley was indeed impossible, he built the Amargosa Borax Works near Shoshone, where the summers were cooler. The ruined remains of these three early borax plants still stand in the desert. The borax was then hauled to the nearest railroad by the use of Twenty Mule Teams hitched to ponderous wagons. At this time, Coleman was producing about 2 million pounds of borax per year from his Death Valley and Amargosa facilities.
In 1882 the Lee brothers discovered a new borax ore on the south side of Furnace Creek Wash in the area of Monte Blanco and Corkscrew Canyon in Death Valley. This new ore was named “colmanite” in honor of borax developer William T. Coleman. The claim became known as the Lila C Mine named at the time by its owner, William T. Coleman after his daughter, Lila C Coleman. This new quartz-like ore demanded far more complex mining methods than cottonball, but it was far richer in borax. Coleman added these borax deposits to his holdings but he never developed them. His financial troubles in 1888 closed the Harmony Borax Works, and they never reopened. In 1890 Coleman sold his properties to an energetic and successful borax prospector from Teel’s Marsh named Francis Marion “Borax” Smith for $550,000 giving Smith a virtual monopoly on domestic borax production. Smith eventually consolidated these properties with his own to create the Pacific Coast Borax Company.
In 1907 Francis “Borax” Smith started mining operations at the Lila C Mine. But the mine was over 120 miles from the nearest railroad. Smith and his business partners decided to build a railroad to service the mine. This new railroad also held the potential to tap in to freighting services in the booming gold and silver mining districts of Goldfield, Tonopah and Bullfrog, Nevada. Smith assigned his top field engineer, John Ryan, to build a railroad to the Lila C Mine. After some initial problems with the original route for the railroad Smith decided to build the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad north from the Santa Fe line at Ludlow, California. Grading began on the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad in 1905 and the line was completed all the way to the Lila C late in 1907. The line ran for 121 miles from Ludlow to Death Valley Junction. Once the railroad reached Death Valley Junction work on the main line stopped and a branch was constructed 7 miles out to the Lila C. After that was completed, work on the main line was continued and the track eventually ran to Beatty, Nevada. The original settlement name of Lila C was changed to Ryan, in honor of John Ryan, Smith’s field engineer. The post office in Ryan opened the same year. This line would ascend around the north end of the Greenwater Range and then they would need to locate a grade through Greenwater Valley to the north end of the Black Mountains of the Funeral Range in order to reach the claims.
The route of the new line went through a group of six borax claims on the west side of the Greenwater Mountains. These claims were located by Coleman’s prospectors in 1883 and 1884 and were called the Played Out, the Biddy McCarthy, the Lower Biddy McCarthy, the Grand View, the Lizzie V. Oakley and the Widow. There was sufficient ore in these claims to sustain production for many years before there would be a need to extend the railroad to the Monte Blanco and Corkscrew Canyon claims. This small railroad operated with gasoline engines pulling ore cars that could each carry three tons of ore. The Baby Gauge ore cars brought the borax ore in to Ryan and the small ore cars were pulled up on top of a large wood ore bin into which the ore was dumped. The ore in the large wood bin was then dumped into the narrow gauge hopper cars of the Death Valley Railroad. The DVRR would then haul the ore to Death Valley Junction for processing and final shipment on the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad. While the company was building the railroad to Ryan it moved a processing mill from the Lila C to Death Valley Junction to separate out the borates in low-grade ore. The high-grade ore was shipped by rail to refineries at Alameda, California and Bayonne, New Jersey. The company also built a wet-processing plant and a Stebbins dry-deshaling plant at Ryan to solve ore processing problems.
As the ore at the Lila C began to play out about 1914, plans were already underway to shift operations to reserves further west on the edge of Death Valley. Company engineers had determined that those large deposits would keep the company going for years, while more was always available on the Monte Blanco and Corkscrew claims.
In January, 1915 the Lila C was closed, though not completely abandoned, and the borax activity shifted to the new town of Devair, almost immediately renamed (New) Ryan, on the western edge of the Greenwater Range overlooking Death Valley. According to the original Death Valley Railroad survey, Ryan was to be only the temporary terminus for a line eventually extending down Furnace Creek Wash to the Corkscrew Canyon and Monte Blanco deposits as they were needed. This projected extension never materialized; however, because the Ryan mines -- the Played Out, Upper and Lower Biddy, Grand View, Lizzie V. Oakley, and Widow -- proved even more productive as development increased until 1928. At that time, a deposit of easily accessible rasorite, more economical to mine due to its proximity to the company's new processing plant, was discovered near Kramer (later Boron), California, again precipitating a shift in mining operations. A new calcining plant was built at Death Valley Junction to handle the lower-grade ores coming from the Played Out and Biddy McCarty Mines. When the Death Valley Junction concentrating plant shut down in 1928, a significant era in borax production and processing in the Death Valley region came to an end.