Borax was first produced commercially in the United States in California at Clear Lake north of San Francisco, from about 1864 to 1868, at which place the industry flourished until the early 1870s when borax began to turn up in large and purer quantities in several of the alkaline marshes of eastern California and western Nevada — notably around Columbus and Teel’s Marsh. Large deposits were located in the Saline Valley flats northwest of Death Valley as early as 1874, prompting an extensive number of borax claims up through the 1890s. However, the discoveries underwent only limited development, because of the lack of railroad facilities, the extremely harsh climatic conditions, and the basic fact that they were simply not rich enough to make their exploitation economically viable. In 1874 minor production began in earnest at Searles Lake in San Bernardino County, California west of the Slate Range where construction and operation of a refinery ultimately turned the valley into one of the most extensively worked and most productive borax areas of the region. Neighboring deposits were subsequently found in marshes near Resting Spring southeast of Death Valley and on the salt pan north of the mouth of Furnace Creek.
The discovery of borax north of the mouth of Furnace Creek was made in 1881 by Aaron and Rose Winters, whose holdings were immediately bought by William T. Coleman and Company for $20,000. He subsequently formed the Greenland Salt and Borax Mining Company (later the Harmony Borax Mining Company), which in 1882 began operating the Harmony Borax Works, a small settlement of adobe and stone buildings plus a refinery. The homestead, later known as the Furnace Creek Ranch, immediately to the south was intended as the supply point for his men and stock. The Amargosa Borax Works in the vicinity of Resting Spring, and also a Coleman enterprise, was run during the summer months when the extreme heat adversely affected the refining process in the valley. A small-scale borax operation, the Eagle Borax Works, was started by a French man named Isadore Daunet in 1881 and was located further down in the valley near Bennett’s Well. It lasted only until 1884 when the inefficiency of its operation combined with personal setbacks resulted in Daunet’s suicide. It is frankly amazing that any of these works experienced half the success they did, for their distance from main transportation systems and the daily hardships involved in working under uncomfortable desert conditions were severe obstacles to their economic success.
The type of borate being exploited on the salt flats of Death Valley was ulexite, in the form of “cotton balls” that were scraped off the salt pan and then refined by evaporation and crystallization. It was initially believed that this was the only form of naturally occurring borax that was commercially profitable. Continuing exploration in the area by Coleman Company prospectors and others soon confirmed that the playa borates that were presently being worked were actually a secondary deposit resulting from the leaching of beds of borate lime. The primary deposit, a richer form of borate later named in honor of William T. Coleman, occurred in beds and veins similar to quartz-mining operations. In 1883 three men by the names of Philander Lee, Harry Spiller, and Billy Yount stumbled upon a large mountain of such ore south of Furnace Creek Wash in the foothills of the Black Mountains.
Selling Monte Blanco to Coleman, reportedly for $4,000, they left, having made their fortune off the borax industry. Within a year an even larger deposit east of the Greenwater Range and about seven miles southwest of Death Valley Junction was also found. It was beginning to appear that this was the southernmost lode in a rich colemanite belt stretching northwest to southeast along Furnace Creek Wash to the area of Furnace Creek Ranch. Coleman also bought this property, naming it the Lila C.
These discoveries that were soon to revolutionize the borax industry in the United States seemed destined for the moment to lie untouched, for several reasons: first, these larger and more concentrated deposits required underground mining methods; second, more sophisticated techniques were necessary for their refinement as they were not readily soluble in hot water; third, no transportation lines extended into this undeveloped area; fourth, no nearby supply center existed; fifth, this badlands region was so hot in summer that it precluded mining activity during that season; and last and perhaps most important, Coleman’s desert refineries were doing so well that he seemed justified in continuing their operations for a while yet.
These extensive and pure deposits would probably have remained undeveloped if not for the discovery in 1883 of more colemanite ledges in the Calico Mountains 12 northeast of the railroad at Daggett in San Bernardino County. Because of their proximity to the railroad these deposits posed a serious threat to Coleman’s Death Valley business. Immediately buying up the most important lodes, he decided to look to the future and initiated research at his Alameda, California refinery in order to determine a profitable method of refining this material. Meanwhile, his Harmony and Amargosa works continued production.
With the dissolution of Coleman’s financial empire in 1890, Francis Marion “Borax” Smith took possession of his holdings at Borate, in the Death and Amargosa Valleys, and his Alameda refinery, and consolidated these and other miscellaneous properties into the Pacific Coast Borax Company. In addition, he took over the colemanite deposits in the Furnace Creek Wash area. Declining borax prices, due to borax imports from Italy and a consequent glut of the product on the market, prompted Smith to close down his Death Valley holdings and concentrate on operations at Borate, where richer ore could be refined by less expensive processes. These became the first major underground borate workings in the United States, and during the years 1890 to 1907 Borate became the chief producer of borax and boracic acid in the country. In time, however, the workings had been carried to such a depth that the cost of their further development was prohibitive, causing Smith’s attention to turn once more to his Death Valley reserves.