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Francis Marion "Borax" Smith

The ambition of every miner is to find and develop a mine. Francis Marion Smith was no exception. Having acquired the prospecting mania early in life, the Fall of 1872, found him in the wood camps about 10 miles from Columbus, Nevada. Like thousands of others, he had been engaged in teaming—contracting for the delivery of wood to the mills and timber to the mines. His worldly goods consisted of several wood ranches, a band of pack animals and the usual variety of wildcat claims.

photo of Francis Marion

His lucky star twinkled the day a terrific earthquake shook Teel's Marsh. From his cabin in the timber lands, Smith could see the Columbus marsh, even then a modest producer of ulexite, and Teel's Marsh, glistening like beds of snow in the desert. Accompanied by two of his woodchoppers, he set out to examine cracks left in Teel's Marsh by the quake. Testing proved them to be solid deposits of borax. So impressed was Smith that he sent one of his men to Columbus to have a sample assayed while he remained to move provisions and pack animals from his wood camp to the new location on the dry desert lake.

Borax was then worth 30c a pound by the carload and 25c an ounce retail. The value of the deposit attracted squatters, but after appealing to courts, clearing up adverse claims and buying out over 100 locators, Smith finally had his location secured. Uniting with his brother, he organized a Chicago firm, erected a small plant and went into production, hauling the borax by mule teams to the nearest railroad. As soon as the profits accumulated, he built a railroad to connect his plant with outside transportation.

Borax Smith, as he was known, purchased all of the existing claims filed by William T. Coleman, a prominent California businessman, on the richest field of borax yet discoveredhundreds of glistening, isolated acres in formidable Death Valley. With a growing demand for borax and an apparently unlimited reserve of crude ore, a quick, sure way had to be found to move the product out of Death Valley and across 165 barren miles of California desert to the nearest railroad junction at Mojave.

The spokes, of split oak, measured bVi inches wide at the hub. The axletrees were made of solid steel bars, 3.5 inches square. The wagon beds were 16 feet long, 4 feet wide and 6 feet deep. Empty, each wagon weighed 7,800 pounds. Loaded with borax, it weighed 31,800 pounds. Two such loaded wagons, plus the water tank (which held 1,200 gallons and weighed 9,600 pounds) made a total of 73,200 pounds or 36.5 tons.

From 1883 to 1889, the 20-mule teams hauled borax out of Death Valley, over the steep Panamint Mountains and across the desert to the railroad. Despite the heat—temperatures often rose to 130 degrees—the teams pulled their heavy loads along the rough trails, traveling 15 to 18 miles a day. It was a 20-day round trip. Springs of water were far apart and each journey was but a repetition of hardship and adventure.

Tragic tales are told of fights between teamsters and tramps of the road; of heat prostration and insanity from thirst. During the six years they were in constant use, the 20-mule teams carried 20 million pounds of borax out of the valley—a considerable tribute to the ingenuity of the designers and to the stamina of the teamsters, swampers and animals.

The 20 - mule teams — the dramatic solution of a transportation problem—soon became a world famous symbol. Through hard work and a lively imagination, Borax Smith made his 20-Mule Team Borax a household staple. One of his first advertising booklets recommended a number of uses—for digestion, keeping milk fresh; as a complexion aid (Don't wash your face in ordinary lake water); for removing dandruff; and for bathing (use half a pound of powdered borax to the ordinary family bath of 12 gallons of water). Borax was also "excellent for washing carriages" and useful, it said, "in curing epilepsy and bunions." To expand his borax business, Smith looked abroad for new markets and in 1896 amalgamated with a British chemical firm to form Borax Consolidated, Limited. Formation of the new company satisfied Smith's need for new outlets.

The company continued to develop the colemanite properties in the Calico Mountains where a calcining plant and a railroad—the Borate & Daggett RR—were built, to make borax and carry it down the mainline of the Santa Fe. Smith next turned back to the colemanite deposits in the Funeral Mountains near Death Valley. Here he built another calcining plant and two more railroads—the narrow gauge Death Valley R.R. and the standard gauge Tonopah & Tidewater R. R. The D.V.R.R. carried ore from the mines to the calciner at Death Valley Junction; from there the T & T took the borax to the mainline of the Santa Fe at Ludlow.

In 1910 Smith settled in Oakland, California. There, investing his profits in public utilities, he brought about a merger of all street car lines in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, which with the addition of the ferry system from Oakland to San Francisco, became the key route system. He also opened up large tracts of land for residential and industrial uses in East Bay cities. Smith took an active interest in sports and was a devotee of yachting. In 1906 he won the cup offered by King Edward VII in the national race off Newport, R.I.

In these new activities, he soon met financial disaster With heavy borrowing on short term notes and extended litigations his $20 million fortune dwindled into bankruptcy. Between 1921 and 1925 he strove to recoup through the acquisition of a newly discovered deposit of colemanite in Clark County, Nevada. Borax Smith was believed to be on the way to new wealth at the time of his death in Oakland on August 27, 1931.

Today borates are used in hundreds of industrial applications ranging from nuclear shields to soaps and cosmetics. Borax has come a long way since a man named Smith wondered what was in a crack made by a quake.

From The Rise and Fall of a man named Smith
by Harry Barber - Nov. 1964 Desert Magazine

Also see:

“Borax” Smith and the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad

It was during this time that Francis Marion Smith (also known as “Borax” Smith) purchased Coleman's properties and all his holdings, including all the claims, ...

Harmony Borax Works - Death Valley National Park

History of Harmony Borax Works in Death Valley. ... Acquired by Francis Marion Smith, the works never resumed the boiling of cottonball borate ore, and in time ...

Daggett Museum - Daggett California

Throughout Daggett's history silver and borax played the major role in the growth ... From 1888 to 1892, Francis Marion "Borax" Smith, in a number of sweeping ...

Calico Ghost Town History

Three miles east of Calico, the town of Borate was formed near borax deposits mine since 1884 by “Borax” Smith. A railroad named the Borate & Daggett was ...

Searles Lake

In the 1870s the Searles brothers were in Nevada, where they saw F. M. Smith successfully mining borax from a marsh. Dennis and John ran back to their lake, ...

Southern Pacific Railroad

With depletion of the borax deposit at Borate and the discovery of borax southeast of Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley, Francis Marion “Borax” Smith was ...

Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad

The Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad, known colloquially as the "T&T," was built by Francis Marion "Borax" Smith in 1906-1907 to tap his borax mines near Death .

Zabriskie, C.B.

Zabriskie's life took on new meaning in 1885 when F.M. "Borax" Smith hired him to supervise several hundred Chinese coolies at the Columbus marsh area of ...

The Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad

The Tonopah & Tidewater grew out of an instance in which Senator W.A. Clark misled and then doublecrossed Francis Marion Smith of the Pacific Coast Borax ...

Railroads of the Mojave Desert

It carried Borax until 1928, when operations ceased. ... called the T&T, were laid by Francis "Borax" Smith to carry ore, cargo and passengers on a north/south .

A History of Zzyzx: 1905 - 1916 The Soda Works

Tracks of the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad, called the T&T, were laid by Francis "Borax" Smith to carry ore, cargo and passengers on a north/south alignment ...

Railroad History in the Mojave Preserve

The Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad, known colloquially as the "T&T," was built by Francis Marion "Borax" Smith in 1906-1907 to tap his borax mines near Death ...


Charles Schwab, Augustus Heinze, T. L. Oddie and F. M. (Borax) Smith were all “ reasonably sure” they had a mine, too, for they were spending money on ...

Daggett California Virtual Tour - Barstow region - Mojave desert

... Lt. Governor John Daggett, John Muir (whose daughter was a resident of Daggett) and "Borax" Smith. The People's General Store served Daggett in the early ...
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