California Desert Adventure

This week was interesting with a trip to Bakersfield; starting off with a painless flight directly to Los Angeles (actually my first flight ever through this airport), I drove north-east some 200 miles into Death Valley National Park.  In my mind, this is one of the most interesting locations in the US, along with Monument Valley and the Arizona Slot Canyons.

Zabriskie Point is a part of Amargosa Range located in Death Valley National Park noted for its erosional landscape. It is composed of sediments from Furnace Creek Lake, which dried up 5 million years ago—long before Death Valley came into existence.  The location was named after Christian Brevoort Zabriskie, vice-president and general manager of the Pacific Coast Borax Company in the early 20th century. The company’s twenty-mule teams were used to transport borax from its mining operations in Death Valley.

The Harmony Borax Works were built in 1882 to refine borax from the salt flats rather than transporting the borax and waste material across the desert (165 miles to the nearest distribution point).

Harmony Borax Works was the central feature in the opening of Death Valley and the subsequent popularity of the Furnace Creek area. The plant and associated townsite played an important role in Death Valley history.

After borax was found near Furnace Creek Ranch (then called Greenland) in 1881, William T. Coleman built the Harmony plant and began to process ore in late 1883 or early 1884. When in full operation, the Harmony Borax Works employed 40 men who produced three tons of borax daily. During the summer months, when the weather was so hot that processing water would not cool enough to permit the suspended borax to crystallise, Coleman moved his work force to the Amargosa Borax Plant near present day Tecopa, California.

Getting the finished product to market from the heart of Death Valley was a difficult task, and an efficient method had to be devised. The Harmony operation became famous through the use of large mule teams and double wagons which hauled borax the long overland route to Mojave.The romantic image of the “20-mule team” persists to this day and has become the symbol of the borax industry in this country.

The Harmony plant went out of operation in 1888, after only five years of production, when Coleman’s financial empire collapsed. Acquired by Francis Marion Smith, the works never resumed the boiling of cottonball borate ore, and in time became part of the borax reserves of the Pacific Coast Borax Company and it successors. On December 31, 1974, the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Harmony Borax Works Refinery
Harmony Borax Works Refinery

Some of the borax works remain in place, rusting as time passes.  With little rain in the area however, many items are very well preserved.

Boiler assembly
Boiler assembly
20 Mule Team wheels
20 Mule Team wheels

Twenty-mule teams were teams of eighteen mules and two horses attached to large wagons that ferried borax out of Death Valley from 1883 to 1889. They traveled from mines across the Mojave Desert to the nearest railroad spur, 165 miles (275 km) away in Mojave, California. The routes were from Furnace Creek, California, to Mojave, California, and from the mines at Old Borate to Mojave.

The wagons were among the largest ever pulled by draft animals, designed to carry 10 short tons (9 metric tons) of borax ore at a time.

Onward to Bakersfield

Not much to comment on, Bakersfield is a town dominated by agriculture (home to Bolthouse Farms for example) and the oil/gas/pipeline industry.  Everywhere across the landscape one sees oil wells, pipes and other oil/gas industry paraphernalia.

PGE Kern Power Plant
PGE Kern Power Plant

One unfortunate incident last year in which PGE attempted to demolish a decommissioned power plant resulting in several injuries.

Next week – preparation for a trip to the Smoky Mountains National Park with Andrew Lerman.


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