DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK – Our grandmothers used it to clean laundry. A small-time miner discovered it and made a fortune. A forward-thinking company mined it and built the luxurious Inn at Furnace Creek in the California desert. The longest running radio program in U.S. history was inspired by it. And with the renewed interest in all things natural, borax could be making a comeback.
Borax, or sodium borate, is best-known as a safe, non-toxic laundry booster that can also clean and deodorize virtually anything in the house. Housewives throughout the 20th century lauded it as a miracle product. Though not considered rare, it is found mostly in two places on Earth – the California desert and Turkey.
One of the richest sodium borate deposits on the planet was discovered in the late 1800s in California’s Death Valley by a gold prospector named Aaron Winters and his wife Rosie. After hearing a description of borax crystals from a passing prospector who also spoke of the commercial value of the substance, Winters recalled seeing a similar-looking substance on the floor of Death Valley. The prospector told Winters that the best way to tell if it was truly borax was to pour alcohol and sulfuric acid over it and ignite it. As soon as they could Aaron and Rosie found the substance, ran the test and discovered it was truly borax. “She burns green, Rosie,” declared Aaron. “We’re rich, by God.” And by the standards of the day, they were. They sold the land they acquired to a San Francisco businessman named William T. Coleman for the sum of $20,000.
Coleman founded the Harmony Borax Works and mined the “white gold” for the next five years. Coleman repeatedly demonstrated entrepreneurial problem-solving skills when faced with the challenges of bringing the crystals out of the rugged desert. No train to ship the minerals? No problem. He devised an ingenious transportation system using the now-famous 20 mule teams and two highly skilled workers. The teams hauled the 36.5-ton loads 165 miles to Mojave where the crystals could be dispersed across the country by railroad. The grueling journey took 10 days. Located near the Ranch at Furnace Creek in Death Valley, the ruins of the Harmony Borax Works can still be viewed today.
Coleman ran into financial trouble in 1888 and sold his assets to a successful borax prospector named Francis Marion “Borax” Smith. Smith eventually consolidated his various borax properties into the Pacific Coast Borax Company.
Borax continued to be mined from the Death Valley area until the 1920s, when a more easily accessible borax deposit in the Mojave Desert threatened to ruin the difficult-to-reach Death Valley mine. Instead of closing its operations, however, the Pacific Borax Company decided to pursue an alternative use for its desert land: tourism.
In 1926, the Pacific Coast Borax Company created a subsidiary called the Death Valley Hotel Company and began construction of a $30,000 luxury inn on 160 acres of desert land. The mission-style structure was set into the low ridge overlooking the Furnace Creek Wash, and meandering gardens and date palm trees were planted to give the resort a feel of lush elegance in contrast to its stark desert surroundings. The hotel opened in February 1927 with 12 guest rooms, a dining room and lobby area. Additional rooms and a mineral spring-fed pool were eventually added. The Union Pacific Railroad teamed up with the Tonopah & Tidewater line to promote travel to remote Death Valley. The train would be met at Ryan – nearly 20 miles from the inn – by touring cars which would transport guests the rest of the way. The inn quickly became a getaway-of-choice for Hollywood celebrities and adventurous travelers who were charmed by the romance of train travel and rugged beauty of Death Valley.
Perhaps buoyed by its success in the hotel industry and its increasing popularity with Hollywood types, the Pacific Coast Borax Company began another unrelated venture in the 1930s – production of a radio program called “Death Valley Days.” 20 Mule Team Borax sponsored the program, which featured Western stories based in Death Valley. After 22 years as a successful radio program, “Death Valley Days” was developed into a television program. The show achieved stunning success and aired for another 20 years. Its popularity was due partly to its format calling for an ever-rotating roster of celebrity hosts. Its most famous host was Ronald Reagan. Death Valley Days was the longest running radio program – and one of the longest TV programs – in history.
Borax is still available today and is typically displayed near the laundry detergents in most large grocery stores. The substance is one of a handful of natural ingredients being touted in recipes for homemade cleaning supplies. For example, it can be used as a laundry booster when ½ cup of the substance is added to wash loads. When mixed with three parts water, it becomes a paste for cleaning carpet stains. Mixed with ¼ part lemon juice, it cleans stainless steel and porcelain.
The Furnace Creek Resort has been welcoming guests since the 1930s. Open from mid-October through mid-May, the Inn at Furnace Creek is an AAA Four Diamond-rated property featuring 66 rooms and two suites with a full array of amenities, fine dining, tennis courts and a spring-fed pool. Open year-round is the Ranch at Furnace Creek. Situated adjacent to the golf course, the Ranch features 224 rooms in a casual setting, general store, spring-fed swimming pool, tennis courts, horseback riding and the Borax Museum.
For more information about facilities in Death Valley National Park or to make reservations at Furnace Creek Resort, go to www.furnacecreekresort.com or call toll free 1-800-236-7916 or 1-303-297-2757.