There’s gold in Death Valley. White gold.
It took prospectors Aaron and Rosie Winters to discover it in the late 1800s, a San Francisco businessman to develop it, a television and radio show to market it – and today’s environmental movement to give it its due. We’re talking about sodium borate, or borax, a common laundry product used for more than 100 years.
Borax is found primarily in two places on the planet – Turkey and the California desert. Visitors see evidence of it throughout Death Valley National Park where there is a museum dedicated to the mineral located at the Ranch at Furnace Creek Resort in the park.
The Borax Museum is housed in a small building, the oldest structure in the park (circa 1883). It was first an office, then a bunk house, then an ore checking station for miners at the Monte Blanco Deposits. The little museum is crammed with artifacts from the borax mining era, and there are antique wagons, carriages and a steam locomotive out back.
Travel Web sites that post comments from visitors include many positive comments for the museum. “This place was way cool,” wrote one visitor. “If you’re into mining history of any type, you’ll find the museum and surrounding exhibits quite interesting.”
It’s also listed as a must-see on such Web sites as www.letsgoseeit.com, www.tripadvisor.com and www.wanderthewest.com.
The museum traces the history of borax mining in the park, including the Harmony Borax Works, and has numerous artifacts, newspaper clippings, photographs and other memorabilia. The museum also chronicles the history of Death Valley.
Because the mining area was so remote, teams of 20 mules were used to haul the heavy carts wagons to a processing location. Visitors of a certain age will recall the radio and later TV programs, “Death Valley Days,” featuring stories of the desert West, and sponsored by 20-Mule Team Borax. One of the pitchman for this series? None other than actor Ronald Reagan (pre-presidency, of course).
The non-toxic laundry product is making a comeback in the 21st century as an environmentally friendly cleaner. Shoppers can find it near the laundry detergent in most grocery stores. Adding one-half cup in the clothes washer is a proven cleaning booster, mixing one part borax and three parts water results in a great carpet stain-remover. One part borax with one quarter part lemon juice cleans porcelain or stainless steel.
Borax also is responsible for the presence of the luxurious Furnace Creek Resort. After the Pacific Coast Borax Company bought out Harmony in the 1920s, the new owners created a subsidiary, the Death Valley Hotel Company. In 1927, they opened the $30,000 Inn at Furnace Creek, with 12 guest rooms, a dining room and lobby. More rooms and a natural spring pool were added later. The company teamed up with the Union Pacific Railroad to stop in Ryan, about 20 miles away, where guests were met by motorcars. Its remoteness appealed to the rich and famous and soon it became something of a legend.
Today, the Inn at Furnace Creek is an AAA four-diamond property, open from mid-October through mid-May. It still has fine dining and a spring-fed pool, plus tennis courts and a golf course, horseback riding and, naturally, the Borax Museum. The Ranch at Furnace Creek is open year-round.