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1880s style wagon building, Borax wagons

The 1880s style wagon building of the 20 mule team Borax wagons has come back to life. Perhaps you witnessed big dreams, big hitches and big wagons as they met together to commemorate a big legend at the world’s largest New Years Day parade; the 2017 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, CA.  You can also watch the wagons as they were built.

The dream of bringing back the legendary 20 Mule Team Borax wagons began to take momentum in 2009 when the Death Valley Conservancy began raising funds to build an exact replica of the 1880 Borax wagons. Once a household name, the original mammoth Borax wagons now sit idle in the Death Valley heat at the Harmony mine, just a memory of years gone by.

During the winter of 2015 I began drafting the plans. Huge oak trees turned into massive hubs, and the 8300-pound wagons began to emerge. With the help of many donors, and with the Rio Tinto Mine tipping the scales, February 1st of 2016 began the start of the race to the Rose Parade finish line. Designed to haul 10 tons of borax and having wheels over 1000# each, these were built completely from scratch, just like the original wagons.

In the mid 1880’s the original wagons traveled desolate miles across the Mojave sand, traveling from camp to camp, to feed and water. Borax was hauled out of Death Valley to the town of Mojave while hay and water were hauled back to restock the camps for the return trips. Two men and 20 mules made this trip every 10 days, covering 165 miles each way.

In their memory, on January 2, 2017, the 20-mule team hitch of Bobby Tanner was hitched to the brand new Borax wagons for their debut voyage down Colorado Boulevard. On pavement instead of sand, but just as grand, millions looked on, seeing first hand the pinnacle of what is known as “the big hitch era”, as it really looked.  When

test driving the new wagons—–courtesy photo, Merilee Mitchell

they watched the 20 Mule Team Borax hitch roll by, big dreams, big hitches, big wagons and big legends came to life before their very eyes.

You can now experience 1880s style wagon building, first hand, at Watch these huge wagons take shape as wood and steel come together. You can also see these wagons up close when they are housed at the Laws Museum, just outside Bishop, CA

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20 Mule Team Borax – grandson


20 Mule Team Borax – grandson

Monday morning, June 13th, started out as just another day answering the phone and working on the 20 Mule Team Borax wagons.  Then in walks a quiet, elderly gentleman and his wife and introduces himself as, “I’m the grandson of Borax Smith.”  As it turned out, Steve Beck and his wife Terry were on a trip celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and had the coach shop on their itinerary.  

I had heard mention that there was a grandson that still had an interest in the Borax history, so it was quite a delight to have them walk in to check the progress of the wagons. 

Steve mentioned that he was now 77 years young and commented that I was one of the few that didn’t question his statement of being a grandson instead of a great grandson.  Evidently there was a wife later in life of Francis Marion Smith, who became known as Borax Smith, of whom Steve was in the lineage of.  


We had a very nice time touring the shop, showing and explaining where we are in the project, i.e. hubs, spokes, felloes, irons, and axle assembling.  I had just completed assembling the axle hounds to the axle caps so I requested if we could have a picture of them with the front gear, to which they graciously consented.  

Steve and Terry operate The Rotten Apple Ranch in Sebastopol, CA.  While Steve has had the pleasure of riding in the 20 Mule  Team Borax wagons now being pulled by Bobby Tanner in a previous Rose Parade, it only heightens his anticipation for his next ride, in the new wagons.

Thank you, Steve & Terry for stopping by.  It was a pleasure being able to meet with you and we are looking forward to meeting again, perhaps to a ride together in the Rose Bowl Parade.  

Many Thanks,

Dave & Diane


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Borax 20 Mule Team Wagons


The Borax Wagon adventure has begun. After several years of planning, searching, drawing and calculating, the reproduction of the Borax wagons that hauled borax out of Death Valley from the Harmony Mine, are about to begin. Thanks to the persistence of the members of the Death Valley Conservancy, of which my privilege to meet with have been Henry Golas and Bobby Tanner, progress has been continually moving forward in a desire to preserve a special part of Americana history in the 20 mule team Borax wagons and the big-hitch era. The wagons pictured here are on display at the Harmony Mine, just outside of Furnace Creek in Death Valley. A couple of skeleton gears are also on display at the museum in Furnace Creek, but these wagons at Harmony appear to be the only surviving wagons, of this size, that hauled Borax from the mine to the rail head 165 miles away. There is one set of wagons very similar to these wagons that are still being pulled and they reside at the mine at Boron. These wagons are hitched to by Bobby Tanner and his 20 mule team at Bishop Mules Days annually, and on occasion for training purposes. Bobby has been taking his 20 mule team hitch to Ketchum Wagon Days in Idaho for about 15 years and hitching to their silver ore wagons, very similar in size to the Borax wagons, but still not as massive. These wagons are estimated to weigh in, empty, at 7800# each. They were designed to carry an additional 10 tons of borax, each, hitched in tandem, along with a water wagon in tow as the third wagon. All this was operated by two men, a jerk line driver, or mule skinner, and a swamper who ran the brake on the second and third wagon and helped attend to the needs of the two men and mules. At this time the axles are nearing completion and 18 hub blanks have been turned and drying. Whether the hub blanks will dry sufficiently to be useable for this time schedule is yet to be determined, but 10 are in Death Valley undergoing the effects of the 100+ degree summer temperatures. Anticipation is growing as several donors are offering their assistance in the project, along with numbers of donors who have helped this dream grow over that last several years. If you are interested in donating to this monumental project please contact me for information as to Mr. Golas’s or Mr. Tanner’s addresses. This is being organized through the Death Valley Conservancy and all monies are directed to them. When the axles arrive, we will shortly thereafter begin construction of the gears and wheels. Because of the magnitude of the wagons, and the significance of the project, I will be posting video clips of the progress to help everyone watch the steps involved in their construction. We appreciate your interest and involvement with this momentous adventure. Thanks to Henry and Bobby, and many, many others, who are driving forces behind this event. Garon Stutzman has written articles for Mules N More magazine which are well worth reading, giving some helpful insights to the projects progression. Mr Stutzman, and his wife Donna, were gracious enough to donate 18 large white oak blocks from which to make the hubs from. They were still at 40% moisture a year ago so it has been a challenge to bring them down in moisture content to make them useable. Time will tell. These wagons have been invited to participate in the 2017 Rose Bowl Parade, so obviously time is of the essence. They are also looking for an official invitation to the 2017 Inaugural Parade in Washington D.C. So stay tuned as we attempt to help make this possible. Best regards. Dave Engel Engel’s Coach Shop