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The Twenty Mule Team Trail - Part 2


teels marsh

The view Smith may have first had of Teels Marsh

In 1872 a young man from Wisconsin named Francis Marion Smith found work in the borax fields of Nevada as a woodchopper. It was at Columbus Marsh, Nevada and if you missed it we covered that in Part 1.    But Smith was not content to chop wood for other people nor was he content to chop wood period. He was on the lookout for his own borax claim and in 1872 he found it. Just over the mountain from the successful Columbus Marsh operation he saw a dry lakebed that looked a lot like a borax deposit. So Smith went down to the site, tested it for borax and struck his claims. He and his brother set up shop and they established Smith Brothers Borax.

francis smith 1875 copy

Francis Marion Smith in 1875 While Building his Borax Empire

Now their main distributor for their product was a man named William Tell Coleman. Coleman was a wealthy and established businessman in the United States. He had made his fortune by distributing goods like salmon, fruit and a whole variety of other products. He owned his own fleet of clipper ships and had his offices in San Francisco, Chicago and New York. In fact some had wanted to run Coleman for president in 1856 and during the Civl War it was Coleman who kept California in the union despite some strong confederate leanings at the time. But now in 1872 Coleman saw the value of borax and helped Smith get established by providing a loan for creating the new company. It wasn't long before Coleman's investment paid off and within several years Francis Marion Smith was the Borax King, buying up many of the companies he had worked for at Columbus Marsh years earlier.

teels marsh borax works
The Remains of Smith's Borax Operation at Teels Marsh from the 1870s bears a striking resemblance to the Death Valley Operation of the 1880s.

In the late 1870s Nevada was the center of Borax production. It was being scraped off of dry lakebeds by Chinese laborers, processed in large vats using a gravitational process, placed in sacks then lifted into large wagons. Many of these wagons were manufactured by Studebaker and were called the Nevada Iron Axle Wagons capable of hauling ten tons. The wagons were hitched in tandem and were often pulled by 16, 18, 20, 24 mules approximately 167 miles to the railroad at Wadsworth, Nevada. This system of hauling would later be used in Death Valley and many would claim the system was invented there but it had been proven to work long before the Death Valley operation ever began  - in the harsh deserts of Nevada.

For the entire story see The Twenty Mule Team of Death Valley.

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