Tuesday, July 09, 2024

Death Valley - Day 4 - Harmony Borax Works - A Lesson in Entrepreneurial Chutzpah

[Composed 11/24/2023]

A few miles from Golden Canyon, we stopped and perused the Harmony Borax Works ruins. It's easy to look at the crumbling structures and rusted bits and see a foolhardy and ultimately failed business venture. And yes, that's sort of what it is. But it also holds the tale of innovation and problem-solving that is at the core of the entrepreneurial spirit. To appreciate this, we need to step back in time to the year 1881.

Our story begins with Aaron and Rosie Winters, a down-on-his-luck prospector and his wife. They have found themselves in desolate Death Valley in search of gold, silver, or any other minerals that will make them rich. As you can imagine, it's not going well. One day, a stranger named Harry Spiller, a fellow prospector, tells Aaron about a new, high-demand mineral:

“It lays in dry lake bottoms,” he told Winters, “white crystals like cotton balls turned into mineral. They call it borax. Big demand for it.”

From this description, Winters thinks he might be onto something, as he's seen rocks that match Spiller's description. Spiller also tells Winters another key fact: borax is easy to identify; it burns green.

After Spiller left, Winters obtained the chemicals he needed to make the test. He was certain he had seen deposits in Death Valley resembling Spiller’s description of borax. Making camp at Furnace Creek in Death Valley, Winters and his wife went to a nearby marsh and gathered up some deposits.

They then waited for nightfall to make the test. As darkness closed in, Winters placed some of the deposits in a saucer, poured sulphuric acid and alcohol over them and struck a match. It was an anxious moment. For years, the couple had lived like desert Indians, eating mesquite beans and lizards when they had no flour and bacon. Rosie had suffered keenly from the desperation of their situation. Now, in a moment, the color of a flame would tell them whether they could look forward to better things, or only more of the same dreary existence.

With trembling hand, Winters held the match to the mixture. “She burns green, Rosie!” he bellowed. “By God, we’re rich!”

And for a time it was true: Aaron and Rosie would get their payday. They'd also be broke soon enough, but that's another story, for another time. They made their fortune not by mining the borax, but by selling it to the next personality in our story: William T. Coleman. And this is where our story turns into the classic entrepreneur's dilemma: Do I stick with my idea, which calls for solving a near-impossible problem, or cut my losses and put my attention elsewhere?

The good news for Coleman was that he was now the owner of a massive deposit of an in-demand resource. Borax was easy to mine and easy to sell. The bad news was that this rich deposit lay in Death Valley, a landscape that barely supports life. And worse, the mines were a whopping 165 miles and one mountain range away from the nearest train depot, in Mojave, CA. Surely, the obvious move would have been to cut his losses and give up. But as any entrepreneur who has ever brought an idea to life can tell you, solving a stream of near-impossible problems is part of the gig.

To overcome this distance, Coleman realized that he needed two things: efficiency and power.

The borax that Winters found in Death Valley continues to be known as cottonball borax. It's a white nondescript rock that's technically called ulexite.

I wonder if, knowing specifically what to look for, we could have found our own samples of ulexite in the field. Regardless, for Coleman's purposes, ulexite was easy to come by. But it was also an impure version of borax. To schlep ulexite 167 miles over impossible terrain meant schleping large quantities of rock that would ultimately be discarded. Coleman's first innovation then was to set up a borax refining plant on-site. That way, whatever material he did haul out of the area would at least be pure borax.

Thankfully for Coleman, the process of purifying borax is relatively simple. Here's how the operation worked:

Workers refined borax by separating the mineral from unwanted mud and salts, a simple but time-consuming process.

Workers heated water in the boiling tanks, using an adjacent steam boiler. Winching ore carts up the incline, they dumped the ore into the boiling tanks. Workers added carbonated soda. The borax dissolved, and the lime and mud settled out.
They drew off the borax liquid into the cooling vats, where it crystallized on hanging metal rods. Lifting the rods out, they chipped off the now refined crystallized borax. To produce “concentrated” borax, they repeated the process.

As we walked through the ruins of the Harmony Borax Works, we saw the remains of these boiling tanks.

You can experience this process firsthand by adding store-bought borax to boiling water with, as the recipe suggests above, an object suspended in the water. As the water cools, sure enough, borax crystals form. Here was my first attempt. Note the crystals are red, not white, because I added some red food coloring to give this project a bit of flair.

Field purification, while simple in practice, was made more difficult by Death Valley's extreme conditions. During the hottest times of the year, the cooling vats never dropped below 120°F (!), the temperature needed to crystallize the borax. So while the scheme of purifying borax was straightforward, the chemistry simply didn't work. Ultimately, Harmony had to cease operations during this time of year.

Thanks to the refining process, Harmony now had the option of hauling pure borax out of the valley. But the fundamental challenge remained: how could a team of workers cover 165 miles and 2,000 feet of elevation gain? By now, in 1883, promises of efficient transportation weren't terribly far off. The first tractor trailer would be invented in 1899, and Mack trucks would be on the scene a year later. Railroads were also expanding rapidly. Time, it seemed, would solve Coleman's challenge. But Coleman wasn't interested in waiting. Instead of advanced tech, the team at Harmony Borax Works used a combination of muscle and chutzpah to get the job done.

According to legend, Coleman's local superintendent J.W.S. Perry and a young muleskinner named Ed Stiles thought of hitching two ten-mule teams together to form a 100-foot-long, twenty mule team. The borax load had to be hauled 165 miles up and out of Death Valley, over the steep Panamint Mountains and across the desert to the nearest railroad junction at Mojave. The 20-day round trip started 190 feet below sea level and climbed to an elevation of 2,000 feet before it was over.

Standing next to an original wagon used by the twenty mule teams, it's just not possible to appreciate how significant an innovation it was. This was more than just a big wagon with big wheels. This was a purpose-built goliath:

Built in Mojave for $900 each, the wagons' design balanced strength and capacity to cary the heavy load of borax ore. Each wagon was to carry ten tons — about one-tenth the capacity of a modern railroad freight car. But instead of rolling on steel rails over a smooth roadbed, these wagons had to grind through sand and gravel and hold together up and down steep mountain grades. Iron tires — eight inches wide and one inch thick — encased the seven-foot-high rear wheels and five-foot front wheels. The split oak spokes measured five and one-half inches wide at the hub. Solid steel bars, three and one-half inches square, acted as the axle-trees. The wagon beds were 16 feet long, four feet wide and six feet deep. Empty, each wagon weighed 7,800 pounds. Two loaded wagons plus the water tank made a total load of 73,200 pounds or 36 1/2 tons.

Imagine that: twenty animals pulled 36½ tons over a friggin mountain range. That's staggering.

For nearly 6 years, Coleman's operation hummed along. Forty souls, mostly Chinese immigrants, performed back-breaking labor in scorchingly hot conditions to collect, refine, and haul borax out of Death Valley. And then it all came to an end. One account suggests that it was improvements in technology and discoveries of new borax deposits that forced the operation's closure:

The extension of rail lines and the discovery of more accessible borax deposits sparked the demise of the Death Valley mining operation after just six years or so. But by that time, the mules had hauled a staggering 20 million pounds of borax from the Death Valley badlands.

If this were true, Coleman would be a shining example of an entrepeneur that understood the power of quitting. I'm looking at you Kodak; a company that clung to film when the future of photography was obviously digital. Navigating the balance between problem solving and giving up is tricky, but at a minimum one must appreciate that both strategies have value.

The evidence, it seems, doesn't support the notion that Harmony Borax's closure was strategic. Instead, it appears to be a direct response to the financial collapse of Coleman himself. Consider this account from the May 8th, 1888 edition of Sacramento Daily Record-Union:

Unexpected Suspension of the Firm of William T. Coleman & Co.
San Francisco, May 7th.—[Special.]—A great surprise was created here to-day when the suspension of William T. Coleman & Co. was announced. Mr. Coleman made an assignment of his property to L. L. Baker and Louis Sloss for the benefit of his creditors, and at the same time an assignment was made by the firm of William T. Coleman & Co. to the same gentlemen for a similar purpose. An assignment was also made by Mr. Coleman of a block of land to the Bank of California.

Oy, a 'financial surprise.' That's never a good thing.

Ultimately, the story of Death Valley borax doesn't end with the closing of Harmony. In fact, Harmony's most significant contribution wouldn't be felt for years to come. But that's another story, for another post.

As we pulled away from the ruins, we said goodbye to Furance Creek section of Death Valley. We had one more stop in the park and then it was off to Las Vegas to close out our adventure.

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