Borax Mining in Death Valley, California

Hindering development of the Lila C Mine was its isolation, but, fortunately, profits from the Calico operation were sufficient to subsidize construction of the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad, projected to stretch from Ludlow on the Santa Fe line to Death Valley Junction and on to Goldfield, Nevada. Work at the mine started even before the railroad was finished, the initial ore recovered being transported to market via 20-mule teams, once more pressed into service. The T & T Railroad, begun in May 1905 and reached Death Valley Junction by 1907. A seven-mile-long spur was immediately laid reaching to the Lila C camp of Ryan Station. Borate was abandoned and all its equipment moved to the new area where a calcining plant was also installed. The Pacific Coast Borax Company had not forgotten its holdings further west near Death Valley; however, as evidenced by a newspaper report in 1909, due to the low price of borax the Lila C might have to be abandoned in favor of the more cheaply-mined deposits of Mount Blanco that existed in inexhaustible quantities. Such a move was possible with the construction of a narrow-gauge railroad from Ryan to the deposits. As the ore at the Lila C began to play out about 1914, plans were already underway to shift operations to reserves further west on the edge of Death Valley. Company engineers had determined that those large deposits would keep the company going for years, while more was always available on the Monte Blanco and Corkscrew claims.

A new railroad was needed in order to open up these deposits, and this resulted in the construction of the Death Valley Narrow-gauge Railroad operating from Death Valley Junction to the newly-opened mines. In January 1915 the Lila C was closed, though not completely abandoned, and the borax activity shifted to the new town of Devair, almost immediately renamed (New) Ryan, on the western edge of the Greenwater Range overlooking Death Valley. A new calcining plant was built at Death Valley Junction to handle the lower-grade ores coming from the Played Out and Biddy McCarty Mines. According to the original Death Valley Railroad survey, (New) Ryan was to be only the temporary terminus for a line eventually extending down Furnace Creek Wash to the Corkscrew Canyon and Monte Blanco deposits as they were needed. This projected extension never materialized; however, because the Ryan mines — the Played Out, Upper and Lower Biddy, Grand View, Lizzie V. Oakley, and Widow — proved even more productive as development increased until 1928. At that time, a deposit of easily accessible rasorite, more economical to mine due to its proximity to the company’s new processing plant, was discovered near Kramer (later Boron), California, again precipitating a shift in mining operations. When the Death Valley Junction concentrating plant shut down in 1928, a significant era in borax production and processing in the Death Valley region came to an end. From then until 1956 borate mining all but ceased, with mines being kept on a standby basis and furnishing only small tonnages to fill special orders. This lull continued until Tenneco, Inc., started open-pit operations at the Boraxo Mine near Ryan in 1971. Borax mining continues in the area today.

Borax has a wide variety of uses. It is a component of many detergents, cosmetics, enamel glazes, insecticides, fire retardants, and more.

The main Death Valley Park Visitor Center and Museum at Furnace Creek provides additional information about borax mining in Death Valley and park rangers are on hand to answer questions.

Additionally, a privately-owned Borax Museum is located in the Furnace Creek Ranch in the oldest building in Death Valley. Originally, the building served as an office, a bunkhouse and the ore-checking station for the Borax miners. Originally located in Twenty Mule Team Canyon, the building was moved to Furnace Creek. The museum exhibits a mineral collection and the history of Borax in Death Valley. Behind the museum building is an assembly of mining and transportation equipment.

 

Borax Museum at Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley, California

Borax Museum at Furnace Creek Ranch

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated January 2018.

Primary Source: Death Valley National Park

Also See:

Characters of Early Death Valley

Death Valley, California

Death Valley Ghost Towns

Desert Steamers in Death Valley

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