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Calico Nevada 4X4 - 20-Mule Team

Time Travel That's Freeway-Close

Larry E. HeckPhotographer, Writer

In 1890, Francis Marion Smith, more commonly known as "Borax" Smith, purchased an assortment of borax mining claims from William T. Coleman. One of those claims was in the Calico Mountains northeast of a new settlement called Barstow, California. At that time, Barstow was nothing more than the end of the track for the Sante Fe railroad, but it had already become a busy supply point for silver mining in the Calico Mountains. Smith became a major player in the area when he began mining borax and using the railroad at Dagget to ship his product. The mining claim became a town of its own with numerous buildings used by the company and the people who worked for it. That community became known as Borate.

Smith had been in the business of mining borax in Nevada for nearly 20 years. He was more successful than William T. Coleman, who owned numerous borax claims in California. When Coleman ran into money problems, Smith bought all his claims in California, including the ones in Death Valley, which were already producing steadily, and the one at Borate that had not been used at all. Ore was being hauled out of Death Valley using a 20-mule team. That team pulled two ore wagons and one other wagon carrying an iron water tank with 1,200 gallons of water to be used in getting the team and drivers across the desert.

Some references claim Smith was already using teams of 24 mules to move his borax in Nevada, but that is not where credit lies for the origin of the 20-mule team. The most popular tale involves two of Coleman's employees. A superintendent and a mule skinner decided that one team of 20 mules could do the same amount of work as two teams of 10 mules.

There may be truth in both stories, but the 20-mule teams didn't gain any notoriety until Smith took over the operations. He formed the Pacific Coast Borax Company which was later renamed U.S. Borax. The borax being sold was packaged with a picture of a 20-mule team on the front, and that photo became the company trademark. Eventually, the name became 20 Mule Team Borax.

When Smith founded the company town of Borate, he chose to use 20-mule teams for shipping. The ore had to be carried across that very remote and environmentally hostile country to the Sante Fe railroad. The nearest depot was in Dagget, California, which is almost due south of Borate beside the current-day Interstate 40 corridor. It was only about 10 miles in distance but began by getting out of the mountains down a narrow canyon and ended with the crossing of barren desert. It was a grueling two-day journey.

The 20 Mule Team Borax trademark took off with programs like Death Valley Days and an assortment of TV commercials. Even though the use of such teams lasted less than 20 years, their notoriety kept them in the spotlight. They were still making public appearances nearly 100 years after the first 20-mule team was hitched to the wagons.

Us... mature... adults still recall the infamous 20 Mule Team commercials and movies from our "less mature" years. The focus was always on the teams used in Death Valley. Those teams ran a regular established route from Death Valley to the town of Mojave where the railway could be accessed. Unfortunately, nothing is left of the historical route from Death Valley - at least nothing that would interest those of us who enjoy paths less traveled.

On the other hand, the route from Borate is much more interesting. At first, it was just a burro trail. After silver was discovered, it became a wagon road. When Borate was established and the mines began producing, it became a 20-mule-team route. Eventually, a railway was run up Mule Canyon. That lasted until the mines at Borate were closed.

Lone Writer rolled into Barstow on a Saturday night. The motorhome he was delivering could not be dropped off until the dealer opened on Monday. He picked up the phone and called an old friend known as Badhat.

"What you doing tomorrow?" Lone Writer asked after the usual "Hi, how you doing and what's been going on since I saw you 10 years ago?"

"Not doing anything. Been thinking about doing some wheeling but never seem to get around to it."

"So pick me up at 9 and get around to it."

It was long past 9 before Badhat and his wife, Bear, pulled into the truck stop where Lone Writer had parked the motorhome.

Badhat suggested the Calico Mountains would make a good story. He handed Lone Writer a book written years ago about the silver mines and borax mines in the area. When Lone Writer saw the story about the 20-mule team, they spent no more time discussing "where to go."

The afternoon started with a trip up Mule Canyon Road. The scenery immediately stole all their attention. The landscape was like a painted desert with a rainbow of colors forming ribbons along the canyon walls. Layers of different minerals had been stacked on top of each other millions of years ago, then sliced away by water and wind to expose their unique colors.

Mule Canyon Road is a rather level surface due to its use as a railway. Except for the level grade of the road slicing through anything in its path, there is nothing left of the railway. There are several intersections along the way. The second one leads to a nice side trip to Kramer's Arch. All intersections lead to abandoned mines. Some of the roads are smooth like Mule Canyon, and some are so difficult that modified vehicles are challenged.

Lone Writer used his laptop with DeLorme TopoUSA and GPS to locate the canyon where the remains of Borate can be found. There are no signs to point the way, and the entrance is so obscured that they drove right past it on the first try.

ATVs and modified vehicles like the one Badhat drives can get into the canyon, but the decision was made to leave the vehicle behind and explore on foot. A short distance into the canyon, they discovered foundations that once supported some of the many buildings in Borate.

Borate was a large community during its prime. It had boarding houses, private homes, a post office, a cook's shack, a recreation room, and other structures. Recreation in those days consisted primarily of card games.

You won't find the remains of the buildings: Most were moved to Death Valley when the mine was closed. Anything remaining has been carried off by visitors. The mine shafts are caved in, but huge stacks of mine tailings mark their locations.

Standing high up on the hillside and looking down, the remains of a loading chute stir the imagination back to the days when the 20-mule team waited patiently below for the loading to complete. Then, with a mighty heave-ho, they dragged the wagons down the narrow passage to connect with Mule Canyon Road and begin the long journey to Dagget.

Due to mining activities in years gone by, the Calico Mountains contain a maze of roads. A group could easily spend a few days in the area and never cover the same road twice. Unfortunately, Lone Writer only had one day to spare. Badhat and Bear needed to be at work on Monday. But, they still had a few hours of daylight left so the exploring continued.

After leaving Borate, they turned down Tin Can Alley Road. There are no signs marking that one either. It got its name during the mining years when residents of Borate used it to discard the many tin cans emptied by hungry miners. Clean-up efforts by numerous groups have removed most of the cans, so the origin of the road's name is not so obvious.

Continuing up Tin Can Alley took them past numerous intersections to an old silver mine called Bismarck Camp. The mining camp is fun to visit because of the many tunnels to explore. Extreme care must be taken with young ones in this area because there is an abundance of holes for them to fall into. If you plan to explore the many tunnels, don't forget a flashlight.

As the day came to an end, Lone Writer found a reference to Kramer's Arch in the old book Badhat had brought along. At first, they used the directions in the book to search for the arch but did not find it. Then Badhat noticed a page with the GPS position listed. Lone Writer keyed it into TopoUSA and a new route was chosen. They parked the Jeep at the bottom of a very steep and rugged hill beside a campsite. A short hike up that hill and Badhat could be heard in the distance yelling, "I found it!"

The arch is interesting to use as a window frame to the valley below and the roads leading in. By the time they returned to the campsite where the Jeep was parked, the sun was setting in the west. Determined to make the day last as long as possible, they turned on some side roads and immediately found minefields of boulders that would challenge any modified vehicle. Since they had only one vehicle and no one would volunteer to walk for help if anything got broken, they decided to back out and return along the easier route.

The sun was completely gone when Badhat parked his Jeep in the lot at Peggy Sue's Diner. "There's no better way to end a terrific day than dinner at Peggy Sue's," Bear said with a grin.

Getting to Borate along the 20 Mule Team Route is easy.
North of Barstow on Interstate 15, take Exit 192, Calico Road. Follow Calico Road north for just over 1 mile. You will see the sign for Mule Canyon Road turning right.

0.0 34 55.2717 116 50.9232 Right on Mule Canyon Road.
1.5 34 56.4051 116 50.3603 Right at fork. Note frame for sign but no sign.
3.2 34 {{{57}}}.2702 116 49.3995 Left at fork.
3.5 34 57.3811 116 49.2203 Right fork
4.2 34 57.3395 116 48.5362 Right. Tin Can Alley is left. Come back to this intersection later to travel to Bismarck.
4.3 34 57.3001 116 48.4362 Right to Borate. This turn is easy to miss. Borate is about 1/2 mile.
Getting to Kramer’s Arch
Begin at the intersection of Calico Road and Mule Canyon Road.
0.0 34 55.2715 116 50.9249 Right onto Mule Canyon Drive.
1.5 34 56.3858 116 50.3594 Right at Y. Note frame for sign but no sign on left.
1.9/0.0 34 56.7286 116 50.4382 Left at Y. Note pipe in center.
0.4 34 57.0295 116 50.3828 Left at campsite in wash and past it to steep hill. Road can be driven if you can get up the hill.
0.5 This is the steep hill with the road to the arch on the left. From here, you can hike if the hill is too steep.
  34 57.0626 116 50.5871 Kramer's Arch.

Larry E. Heck has been writing backcountry adventure stories since 1985. Some of the newer e-book products in the Campfire Tales series can be found at his website, www.lone-writer.com. The site also contains some Campfire Tales written decades ago. If you have an idea for a historic backcountry trail that you think Larry should consider, send an e-mail to larry@lone-writer.com or call (303) 910-7647.