Borax was discovered at the ironically named Greenland section of Death Valley in 1881. Harmony Borax Works was processing borax by 1884 and was instrumental in the opening of Death Valley to commercial ventures.
Greenland became known as Furnace Creek Ranch – which now serves as the national park headquarters and is the hub of activity for the park.
Harmony Borax works ceased operations over 130 years ago, but the remains of the plant have been preserved and are on display near the park headquarters.
The historical marker at the site gives a brief synopsis of the borax works’ history.
On the marsh near this point borax was discovered in 1881 by Aaron Winters who later sold his holdings to W.T. Coleman of San Francisco. In 1882 Coleman built the Harmony Borax Works and commissioned his superintendent J.W.S. Perry to design wagons and locate a suitable route to Mojave.
The work of gathering the ore (called “cottonball”) was done by Chinese workmen. From this point process borax was transported 165 miles by twenty mule team to the railroad until 1889.
The rest of the text on this page is from the interpretive signs at the Harmony site.
Harmony Borax Works
San Francisco businessman William T. Coleman built this plant to refine “cottonball” borax found on the nearby salt flats. The high cost of transportation made it necessary to refine the borax here rather than carry both borax and waste to the railroad, 165 miles across the desert.
Borates – salt minerals – were deposited in ancient lake beds that uplifted and eroded into the yellow Furnace Creek badlands. Water dissolved the borates and carried them to the Death Valley Floor, where they recrystallized as borax.
Borax – blacksmiths used it, as have potters, dairy farmers, housewives, meat packers, and even morticians. For centuries humans have exploited borax for many important uses.
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, the repeated the process.
Twenty Mule Teams
For more than a century the 20 Mule Team has been a symbol of the borax industry – on product labels, in history books, and on television. The status is well-earned; mule teams helped solve the most difficult task that faced Death Valley borax operators – getting the product to market.
The mule teams pulled loads weighing up to 36 tons, including 1,200 gallons of drinking water. The rear wagon wheels were seven feet high, and the entire unit with mules was more than 100 feet long.
Living at Harmony
Crude shelters and tents once dotted the flat below the borax works. Chinese workers slept and at there; other employees lived at what is now Furnace Creek Ranch
The financial problems of owner William T. Coleman and borax discoveries in other parts of California forced the Harmony operation to close in 1888 after five years of operation.