Historic Borax Wagon Destroyed in Blaze at Death Valley National Park

Beginning in 1883, 18 mules and two horses hauled wagons full of borax across eastern California

Burned wagon next to steam engine
The fire destroyed one of the historic "20-mule team" wagons from the late 19th century. A steam tractor named "Old Dinah" survived. NPS

In the 1880s, workers began extracting borax from the ground in Death Valley. To haul the valuable compound to the nearest train station in California, they attached 18 mules and two horses to a set of wooden wagons—two loaded with borax and a third carrying water. Many years later, these “20-mule teams” remain an enduring image.

One of those historic wagons was destroyed in a fire at Death Valley National Park earlier this month, according to an announcement from the National Park Service (NPS). The blaze occurred on the grounds of a privately owned resort within the park.

A second fire occurred a few hours later in the same area, destroying two unoccupied employee housing units and damaging a third. No one was injured in either fire. Authorities don’t know what caused the two blazes, but both are now under investigation by the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office and the state fire marshal.

Park rangers responded to the first fire just after midnight on April 4. The blaze was located in an outdoor area behind the Borax Museum that displays a collection of historic borax-related vehicles and equipment.

The historic wagon destroyed in the blaze was once used for mining operations in Death Valley. Before the fire, it had featured original running boards and some metal hardware from more than 130 years ago.

A steam engine nicknamed “Old Dinah,” which was made to replace the mules towing the wagons, “escaped significant damage,” per the NPS.

“Old Dinah required constant maintenance and had major problems with sand and steep grades,” according to Oasis at Death Valley. “After a one-year trial, mules proved more productive and reliable.”

Old wagons
Another set of the historic wagons still stands at the site of Harmony Borax Works within the national park.  NPS / Bob Greenburg

Fortunately, Death Valley National Park still has another historic wooden wagon set from the “20-mule team” era. The remaining set is located at the site of Harmony Borax Works, an ore processing plant and townsite built in late 1883 and early 1884.

Harmony Borax Works became famous for its 20-mule teams, which pulled double wagons full of borax for 165 miles to the town of Mojave, according to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jill K. Robinson. At the peak of operations, 40 men worked at the plant to produce three tons of borax each day.

Its success was short-lived. In 1888, after just five years of operation, the plant went out of business. It’s been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974.

“The Harmony wagons were used in the national tours to promote the sales of Borax,” writes the NPS. Today, they possess the most original material of any of the “20-mule team” wagons still in existence.

Illustration of mules towing wagons
This illustration shows the setup of the 20-mule teams and wagons. NPS / C. Kraus

Another set of historic “20-mule teams” wagons is on display at the headquarters of the U.S. Borax Company in Boron, California. That set was used during the filming of the Western TV series “Death Valley Days,” which ran from 1952 to 1970.

In the late 19th century, borax was marketed as a treatment for dandruff, epilepsy and a wide array of other issues, reports SFGate’s Amanda Bartlett. Today, it’s used to make products like disinfectants, cosmetics, fertilizer, ceramics, lenses, glue and gauze, according to the Death Valley Natural History Association.

During special events, staffers sometimes bring out replica wagons and use specially trained mules to pull them through the park.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.