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| Claudia Heller | Trip Reports

2019 - 20 Mule Team Power in Death Valley

Alan & Claudia Heller Experience 20-Mule Team Power in Death Valley

There was a long line of spectators perched on camp chairs lining the dusty Death Valley road from the Inn to the Ranch. The celebrities of the day were scheduled to appear soon, and security had blocked the road to passing cars. Under a brilliant blue sky, we waited until suddenly they arrived, the stars of the day: The 20 Mule Team!

Once working under the harshest of conditions hauling borax from mine to railroad, the mules were but beasts of burden. Today they march in parades, re-enacting a mundane task of the past, bringing history alive. As in years ago, they are dependent on teamwork and cooperation between the workers, the mules and the horses. A fine-tuned team is their goal.

It was mules like these that contributed to delivering borax crystals loaded into wooden containers to the railroad and on to processing plants. In time the raw crystals would make up many household products such as a humidifier, deodorizer, carpet cleaner, drains de-clogger, detergent booster, and most popular a hand and household cleaner called Boraxo.

Borax crystals, some weighing up to a pound, were discovered in Death Valley in 1864, and the Borax Company was born. Hauling the product was a challenge. The team of workers, mules and horses struggled to traverse rugged salt beds, pockets of mud and slush, uphill climbs and steep declines, all the while in stifling hot weather or bitter cold. The wagons could weigh up to 45,000 pounds, not including food for the men and animals, and water. A loaded team traveled an average of 17 miles per day and started at 190 feet below sea level to nearly 4,000 feet elevation.

While the borax business flourished and the product was in demand, the mules answered many calls. During the 1800s mules were a vital mode of transportation, hauling artillery during the civil war. Although horses were fine for short hauls, mules were better for long traverses like the one from Death Valley. They are known as stubborn animals, but mule skinners had methods to train them. The public enjoyed a more dramatic story of those borax mining days and the hardships faced by miners and cowboys through a radio and television series Death Valley Days. Most will remember the role played by Ronald Reagan who quit the series to run for California Governor.

The Death Valley parade in early November this year gave the public an opportunity to witness this piece of history. The mules, muleskinners and working teams marched proudly.

Today the mules are celebrities, re-enacting their past performances. The mule team legend came to life in Boron in October of 1998 as the town celebrated its mining history with a parade. It is said so many people showed up that the Kern County Sheriff’s Department couldn’t keep them off the parade route. However, in the San Gabriel Valley the premier appearance of the mule train was in the 2017 Pasadena Rose Parade, 100 years from its original Pasadena appearance in 1917, when it won first place. It also made a Pasadena appearance in 1998.

Today one of the original wagons is on display at the Borax Visitor Center in Boron, California. See: or call (760) 762-7588. ~ Claudia