William Coleman

William Coleman, entrepreneur and Borax businessman.

In 1883, American businessman William T. Coleman had a major problem:  how could he transport cottonball or ulexite — a crude ore compound of boron, oxygen, sodium and calcium —  from his mine hundreds of miles from the railway in Mojave, California.

Coleman’s superintendent J.W.S Perry and a young muleskinner Ed Styles devised a plan that saw the creation of  a 100-foot long, 18 mule and two horse team and a few men capable of crossing infamous Death Valley with its 150 degree Fahrenheit temperatures (55 degrees Celsius), non-existent roads and 2,000-foot elevations. Not for the fainthearted!

First they built the massive wagons with iron wheels eight inches wide and one inch thick to carry ten tons of borax ore over desert sand, gravel, rock and up and down mountain passes. They were 16 feet long, four feet wide and six feet deep and two loaded wagons plus a water tank made a total of 36.5 tons or 73,200 pounds to be pulled.

Training: No Room for Error
However, while the wagons were impressive, it is the training of the mules and horses that really made these trips incredible. Each mule or horse was chosen for its intelligence, was trained to respond to its name and was then placed in the team with a very specific job.

For example, swinging the team and wagons around a sharp mountain curve tested the training, skills and intelligence of both man and beast.  As the team started around a curve the chain would be pulled in a straight line between the lead mules and the wagon with disastrous consequences. To fix this problem, some of the mules close to the wagon were trained to jump the chain and pull it at an angle away from the curve. These specially trained mules, the pointers, sixes and eights would then step along sideways until the corner had been turned.

mule train

Mule train: mules and horses proved adept and able in Death Valley.

Leaders – 2 Mules. These were considered the smartest mules and they wore bells on their harness so the others could hear where they were heading
Swing Team – 10 mules. These provided solid strength, had to know their names and respond to “pull” and “stop”.
Pointers, Sixes and Eights – 6 mules. These mules were trained to jump the chain when negotiating a corner.
Wheelers – 2 large horses. These were the strongest and biggest animals capable of providing the initial pull to get the wagons moving.

swing team

This illustration shows how the mules and horses negotiated mountain curves.


Muleskinners’ Blues
A muleskinner or driver was so named for his ability to “skin” or outsmart his mules or team of mules. His tasks on these desert trips included acting as driver, harness and equipment checker, veterinarian, blacksmith and mechanic.  He was rough and tumble,  a loner and able to endure the hardships of these long arduous trips for about $120.00 a month…a fortune back  then.

The muleskinner would hitch up his 18 mules and 2 horses and then attach an 80-foot chain running the full length of the team and then onto the wagon. A long rope was attached through the collar ring of each left hand mules up to the leaders. The driver held a whip with a 6 foot handle and a 22 foot lash but his main method of communication and command lay in manipulating this ‘jerk line’ which ran the full length of the team.  A steady pull turned them left and a series of jerks turned them right and, on downhill stretches, the driver also rode the nigh wheeler or left hand horse so that he could operate the brake.

The one way trip from mine to railway took 10 days and the mules covered 17 miles a day through the mountains and across the desert that was fraught with dangers from rattlesnakes, heat rough stony ‘roads’ and broken brakes. Water was carried in 500 gallon iron tanks pulled behind the wagons, hay and grain was stored a day’s journey apart and the men carried their beans and bacon with them.  The muleskinners were helped by ‘swampers’ who unharnessed the mules, cooked meals, and fetched firewood.

Accident-Free for Six Years!
Between 1883 and 1889, the teams hauled more than 20 million pounds of borax out of the Valley week in and week out. During this time, there were no accidents with the animals and none of the wagons broke; truly an amazing feat. By 1889, railway growth and new mineral deposits saw the end of the 20 mule teams but they continued to make many promotional and ceremonial appearances on behalf of Borax.

20 mule team

This became the Borax logo recognized all over America.

Registered in 1894 and first used in 1891, the 20 MULE TEAM symbol became the beloved trademark of the Pacific Coast Borax Company — and, in turn, of Borax, then seen as the ‘miracle mineral’ to aid digestion and complexions and to cure dandruff,  epilepsy and bunions. However, in truth 20 MULE TEAM was a misnomer because it was in fact a team of 18 mules and 2 horses but, the Borax 20 Mule Team slogan had a better ‘ring’ to it than The Borax 18 Mule and 2 Horse Team.

Today, Borax is owned by Rio Tinto, an international mining group and is still used in many applications including: glass, optical lenses, enamel, ceramics, detergents and soaps, brake fluid, antifreeze cosmetics and medicines.

For more information about the Borax 20 Mule Team go to:

To watch a video giving the history and background of the Borax 20 Mule Team go to: