On A Path Of History: The Borax Wagons Of Death Valley

Our lives have many paths, not just one that’s straight and perfectly paved from beginning to end, but instead our paths are made up of many smaller ones that wind in and out and up and down, some with sharp curves and others with gentle bends.


These paths can fade away into nothingness only to come back sharp and clear like focusing the lens on a camera.  Sometimes our paths cross with others and good things can come out of that.


Bobby Tanner and Dave Engel

This is a little story about people whose life paths came together in order to do something big, historic and rather epic.  They built wagons.  Not ordinary wagons, though.  They built really, really BIG wagons.


They rebuilt the Borax wagons of Death Valley.


I was six the first time I visited Death Valley.  It was December of 1968 between Christmas and New Years, when it was still a National Monument, long before it became a National Park.  I remember quite distinctly standing at Harmony Borax Works, staring up at the enormous wagons that are the only surviving original set that were used to haul borax out of Death Valley in the 1880’s.


The wagons were giant and imposing, with weathered wood and peeling paint, perched out at Harmony, overlooking the valley as if they still longed to have the Twenty Mule Team hitched to the front.  The whole story seemed so grand and wild, it was the stuff of legends, Death Valley Days, The Old Ranger and Ronald Reagan.


I found it strangely romantic and I fell in love with Death Valley and its history. To me that is the real Wild West.


I first picked up a camera in 2009 and began my own path photographing the desert.  Completely self-taught, my learning ground was Death Valley.  Over the years I met good people in Death Valley, the kind of people who do large and great things to preserve the history of that place.  Preston Chiaro and Henry Golas of the Death Valley Conservancy, filmmaker Ted Faye and Bobby Tanner, the muleskinner who breathed life back into the Twenty Mule Team.


What Bobby Tanner does is an art form.  To watch him with his team of twenty mules, controlling them with a jerkline (a single rope attached to the bridal of the lead mule) and voice commands is jaw-dropping.  In 1999 Bobby took the Twenty Mule Team to the Rose Parade and ever since then he and the team have made numerous appearances at Bishop Mule Days, Boron’s Mule Team Days as well as others.  In each of these he has been using a set of Borax Wagons that are smaller than the originals.  The intention of all these men was to eventually have an exact replica set of wagons built that match the original Borax wagons.  It was a project that would not be easy or quick, but they started down that path also in 2009 when the Death Valley Conservancy began raising funds for the wagons.


Through the generous donations of people who care about the history of the Twenty Mule Team and Death Valley, money was raised to build the wagons.  Then came the task of finding the right person to build them.  That person ended up being Dave Engel of Engel’s Coach Shop in Joliet, Montana.  Bobby Tanner and Henry Golas both said they knew Dave was the man for the job within five minutes of meeting him.  It was a perfect fit.  Dave is a tall man with kind eyes, a soft voice and a humble manner.  His craftsmanship is unparalleled.


After years of planning and fund raising, the wagons then took 2,800 hours to build.  Two of the wagons are complete, the water wagon is still yet to be finished.


On the afternoon of December 21 I drove to the Owens Valley to greet the new wagons as they arrived from Montana.  It was an historic moment, when the new reproduction Borax wagons came to their new home.  I wanted to capture it and to watch the mules be hitched to the wagons for the first time and taken out on their maiden voyage on the dirt paths in the sagebrush.


I stood with Dave Engel while we watched the mules being hitched to his wagons and I asked him how he came to be a wagon maker.  He said one day he thought it might be interesting to get involved in making and repairing buggys.  He had no clue at the time that his path would lead him to being the man who would make history in Death Valley.


I then rode on the back of a flatbed truck, balancing myself with my elbows on the metal bar in back of the cab.  The truck followed behind the new wagons and their mules on their path through the sagebrush while a storm blew in over the Sierras.  As I watched the wagons make a turn I suddenly realized what was happening, how my own path had led me to the old Borax wagons so many years ago and here I was photographing their replicas.  I laughed at the thought and then realized how fortunate I was to have had the privilege of witnessing the moment.


On Monday, January 2, 2017 the Twenty Mule Team with their new reproduction Borax wagons will carry the Tournament of Roses President in the 128th Rose Parade down a really big path – Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena.  Bobby Tanner will be holding the jerkline and commanding his mules while Dave Engel rides in the wagon in the back and both men will make history.  Afterwards the wagons will live at the Laws Museum in Bishop, California.


I would like to acknowledge the Death Valley Conservancy, Preston Chiaro and Henry Golas, Bobby and Claudia Tanner, Dave and Diane Engel of http://engelscoachshop.com/ , Ted Faye of http://goldcreekfilms.com/, all of the people who generously donated funds to build the wagons as well as the crew who keep the Twenty Mule Team running.


The Twenty Mule Team exists because of generous donations.  Contributions to keep Death Valley history alive and preserved can be made to the Death Valley Conservancy at https://www.facebook.com/dvconservancy/?fref=ts and http://www.deathvalleyfund.org






10 thoughts

  1. Thanks for the photos and tribute to the Twenty Mule Team Merilee. I visited the Harmony Borax works about 20 years ago and it left me with an indelible memory. I couldn’t imagine working in such a place with the blinding whiteness, the heat and the borax dust. An environment so different from the rainy West Coast of British Columbia where I live. Always a pleasure to view you blog every morning!

  2. Thank You for keeping alive a memory of the Owens Valley, Death Valley and the history that we all cherish. As one who has been up to the top of Cerro Gordo and appreciates the adventures of so many before us and the extreme conditions they faced this is amazing. I must thank my friend Jim Cameron who has shared his experience and this great tribute for all of us to enjoy. Keep up the great work.

  3. Thanks for the shout out of our hometown family, Dave and Diane. Here in Joliet we are very lucky to see the brilliant work that comes out of Dave’s shop. Beautiful craftsmanship and a wonderful family.

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