The borax museum at Furnace Creek is housed in a building that was originally constructed in 1883 by F.M. "Borax" Smith, founder of the Pacific Coast Borax Co. The oldest house in Death Valley, it stood originally in Twenty Mule Team Canyon where it was office, bunk house and ore-checking station for miners at the Monte Blanco deposits.
The objects within and around it were assembled by the company so that visitors to the Valley might better understand the history of the region.
The first form of borax to be found in Death Valley was white crystalline ulexite called “cottonball”, which encrusted the ancient lake bed, Lake Manly. Cottonball of this kind had been found earlier at Columbus Marsh and at Teel’s Marsh, in western Nevada.
In 1882, the Harmony Borax Works was built, and utilised Chinese labour in the operation. Finding that summer processing in the Valley was impossible, the Amargosa Borax Works was built near Shoshone, where the summers were cooler. The ruined remains of these three early borax plants still stand in the desert. The borax was hauled to the nearest railroad by the use of Twenty Mule Teams hitched to ponderous wagons. Up to 900 metric tons of borax were produced per year from the Death Valley and Amargosa facilities.
In the 1880s, a new form of borax (colmanite) was discovered along Furnace Creek Wash. A quartz-like ore, it demanded far more complex mining methods than cottonball, but it was far richer in borax.
However, in 1888 the Harmony Borax Works closed due to financial difficulties, and they never reopened. Two years later, the properties were consolidated into the Pacific Coast Borax Company.
Transportation to the market was achieved by the "twenty mule teams", which between 1883 and 1888 hauled more than 5,400 metric tons of borax from the remote and inaccessible Death Valley to the railroad at Mojave.
When the Harmony Borax Works was built in 1882, teams of eight and ten mules hauled the ore. But with increased production, the first teams of twenty mules were tried. Stretching out more than a hundred feet from the wagons, the great elongated teams proved a dependable means of transportation.
The borax wagons were large and well built. The rear wheels were 7 feet high, the front wheels 5 feet high. Each wheel had a steel tire 8 inches wide and an inch thick. The hubs were 18 inches in diameter and 22 inches long. The spokes were of split oak, the axle-trees were solid steel bars. The wagon beds were 16 feet long and 6 feet deep, and could carry 10 tons of borax. Fully loaded, the wagons, including the water tank, weighed 36.5 tons.
The distance to Mojave was 165 miles. Traveling fifteen to eighteen miles a day, it took ten days to make the trip. After leaving the Valley the teams had to cross 100 miles of empty desert, where many of the overnight stops were at dry camps. Water tanks were therefore attached to the wagons, to supply the men and animals between springs.