Harmony Borax Works
— Refining Borax —
These panels deal with how borax was mined and refined at the Harmony Borax Works in Death Valley.
Borates - salt minerals - were deposited in ancient lake beds that uplifted and eroded into the yellow Furnace Creek badlands. Water dissolved the borates and carried them to the Death Valley floor, where they recrystallized as borax.
Borax - blacksmiths used it, as have potters, dairy farmers, housewives, meat packers, and even morticians. For centuries humans have exploited borax for many important uses.
Harmony Borax Works
San Francisco businessman William T. Coleman built this plant to refine the "cottonball" borax found on the nearby salt flats. The high cost of transportation made it necessary to refine the borax here rather than carry both borax and waste to the railroad, 165 miles (265 km) across the desert.
Workers refined borax by separating the mineral from unwanted mud and salts, a simple but time-consuming process.
Workers heated water in the boiling tanks, using an adjacent steam boiler.
Winching ore carts up the incline, they dumped the ore into the boiling tanks.
Workers added carbonated soda. The borax dissolved, and the lime and mud settled out.
They drew off the borax liquid into the cooling vats, were it crystallized on hanging metal rods.
Borax will not crystallize at temperatures above 120 degrees, so Harmony Borax Works stopped operating during the summer. To keep the crystallizing vats cool the rest of the year, workers wrapped them with water-soaked felt padding, visible in the photograph.
Lifting the rods out, they chipped of the now refined crystallized borax. To produce "concentrated" borax, the repeated the process.
For later transport, the workers bagged and stored the refined or concentrated borax in a barn that stood behind you.
Living at Harmony
Crude shelters and tents once dotted the flat below you. Chinese workers slept and ate there; other employees lived at what is now Furnace Creek Ranch. This 1892 photo - taken after the works closed - shows the borax works in the center of the view and the company village on the flat to the left.