Harmony Borax Works - Death Valley National Park

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This page last updated on 02097/2018
(Fig. 01)
Directions: The shortest route to Death Valley from Las Vegas is only 2 hours or 120 miles. From Interstate 15 South , EXIT on NV Hwy 160 West. Drive 60 miles to Pahrump, Nevada and turn left onto Bell Vista Road (3 miles north of Hwy 372). Drive 30 miles to Death Valley Junction, California and turn right onto CA Hwy 127. Drive about 300 feet and turn left onto CA Hwy 190 and drive 30 miles to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. Then drive North on highway 190, about 1.5 miles past the Visitors Center, and turn left on Borax Mine Road. Park in the lot at the start of the fenced, paved loop that circles the site.

02/28/2014 Trip Notes: This is a short stop in Death Valley near Furnace Creek, was our third stop of the day, and the rain was just beginning to come down. It is the center for a lot of the mining history for Death Valley. In about fifteen minutes you can walk around and see the remains of a refinery, an old twenty mule team wagon, as well as a lot of area history. This pleasant 0.25-mile loop runs on a fenced, paved trail through the historic Harmony Borax Works. Exhibits along the trail include the batch plant ruins, machinery, signs describing life and processes at the plant, and historic 20-mule team wagons. Across the nearby flats (Fig. 02), the remains of adobe buildings stand in quiet testament to the people who made a living here. Out on the flats, salt "haystacks" remain from the day men walked away from here. The picture in (Fig. 02) is of a Borax storage building used stored the processed Borax before being shipped.

(Fig. 02)

Considered an outdoor museum because the natural atmosphere in Death Valley preserves artifacts so well, the Harmony Borax plant and wagon cart are left out in the open for visitors to see. Borax, called “white gold” by miners in the late 1800's, was mined heavily in the area around Death Valley. In the 1800s The Harmony Borax Works was constructed to process the borax before it was hauled away on a twenty-mule team wagon. Though this is definitely not a "destination" site, it is worth the stop. See the sections below for more information. From here we went to the Borax Museum located inside the Furnace Creek Ranch ... Borax Museum at Furnace Creek Ranch.
(Fig. 03)
History of the Harmony Borax Works:  The Harmony Borax Works are considered an outdoor museum because the natural atmosphere in Death Valley preserves artifacts so well, the plant and wagon cart are left out in the open for visitors to see. After “cottonball” borax was discovered on the marsh near near Furnace Creek in 1881, this became the site of the borax processing plant built circa 1882-84 by William T. Coleman, owner of the Harmony Borax Company, to process raw borax ore for shipment to the train depot in Mojave, 165 miles to the south. The Harmony Borax Works was one of the central features in the opening of Death Valley and the subsequent popularity of the Furnace Creek area. The plant and associated town site played an important role in Death Valley history. The high cost of transportation made it necessary to refine the borax here rather than carry both borax and waste 165 mile across the desert to the railroad. Crude shelters and tents once dotted the flat below, where the Chinese workers, paid $1.60 a day for gathering the ore, ate and slept. Other employees lived at what is now Furnace Creek Ranch. Getting the finished product to market from the heart of Death Valley was a difficult task, and expensive task. Needing a more efficient method, Mr. Coleman commissioned his superintendent, J.W.S Perry to design transport wagons and locate a suitable route to Mojave. As a result, the Harmony operation became famous for its use of the large 20-mule teams and double wagons (Fig. 04) which hauled the semi-processed borax over the long, 165 mile overland route to the closest railroad in Mojave, California.
These twenty mule team wagons solved a transportation problem. Initially teams of eight and ten mules hauled the ore. But with increased production, the first teams of twenty mules were tried. Stretching out more than a hundred feet from the wagons, the great elongated teams immediately proved a dependable means of transportation. With their massive 7 foot rear/five foot front wheels with inch thick, 8 inch wide steel tires (Fig. 05), the wagons could carry 10 tons of Borax. Fully loaded, including a 1,200 gallon steel water tank (Fig. 04), these 16 foot long, 6 foot deep wagons weighed 36.5 tons. Between 1883 and 1888 they hauled more than twelve million pounds of borax from remote and inaccessible Death Valley to the railroad at Mojave.
(Fig. 04)
(Fig. 05)
When in full operation, the Harmony Borax Works employed 40 men who produced three tons of borax daily. During the summer months, when the weather was so hot that processing water would not cool enough to permit the suspended borax to crystallize, Coleman moved his work force to the Amargosa Borax Plant near present day Tecopa, California. The Harmony plant went out of operation in 1888, after only five years of production, when Coleman’s financial empire collapsed. Later acquired in 1890 by Francis Marion Smith (to become the Pacific Coast Borax Company), the works never resumed the boiling of “cottonball” borate ore, and in time became part of the borax reserves of the Pacific Coast Borax Company and it successors. On December 31, 1974, the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Still today, the romantic image of the “20-mule team” has become the dominate symbol of the borax industry in this country.

Refining the Borax: Borates, a form of salt minerals, were first deposited in ancient lake beds that, over millions of years, uplifted and eroded into the yellow Furnace Creek badlands. Water dissolved the borates and carried them to the Death Valley floor, where they recrystallized as borax, commonly called “Cottonball Borax”. Workers refined borax by separating the mineral from unwanted mud and salts, a simple but time-consuming process. First, workers heated water in the boiling tanks, using an adjacent steam boiler (Fig. 06). Then, winching ore carts up the incline, they dumped the ore into the boiling tanks (Fig. 07) and added carbonated soda. The borax dissolved, and the lime and mud settled out. They drew off the borax liquid into a series of cooling vats located below the boiling tanks, where it crystallized on hanging metal rods. Lifting the rods out, they chipped off the now refined crystallized borax. To produce "concentrated" borax, they merely repeated the process. For later transport, the workers bagged and stored the refined or concentrated borax in a barn that stood in the valley below the processing operation.
(Fig. 06)
(Fig. 07)
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