20 Mule Team1

Ghosts of the Past 3

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The 49'ers
20 Mule Team in Panamint Valley
(Frasers Foto Card)
The 20 mule team (pictured left) driven by Russ Spainhower left Lone Pine with Bruce Morgan's [see Mt. Whitney Pack Trains history] Group of '49ers, November 23, 1949 in a treck across Panamint Valley to Death Valley for the December 2nd Centennial.

These big wagons with wheels that weigh over eight hundred pounds each, pulled by ten pair of mules driven with only a single "jerk line", traveled at a speed averaging two miles an hour and required ten days to make the trip from Lone Pine to Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley.

Bruce Morgan
Bruce Morgan at Lone Pine Lake
(Union Pacific Railroad Photo)


For more information about Bruce Morgan see Mt. Whitney Pack Trains history

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20 Mule Team rigging photos courtesy of Paul Lamos from the archives of his stepfather, and former MWPT packer, - Bill Smart.

20 mule team
Bruce Morgan laying out the 20 mule team rigging on U.S. 395 in Lone Pine.

20 mule team
L to R: Vasie Cline, Billy Bishop, Leppy Diaz, Leakey Olivas
(see enlarged photo for view of all)

20 mule team
Checking out the 20 mule team rigging before leaving Lone Pine

20 mule team
Checking out the rigging on the lead mules.

 borax products

20 mule team
Billy Bishop (who packed for Mt. Whitney Pack Trains for many years during the 1950s) waiting to place the mules in their position in the 20 mule team.

20 mule team
Hitched up and ready to leave Lone Pine for Furnace Creek.

The Mule

20 mule team
Vasie Cline riding 'Ike' the mule.
Vasie was always the driver of the 20 mule team.

20 mule team
20-mule team all hitched up and ready to go.

20 mule team
20 Mule Team Wagon

20 mule team
Bill Smart riding 'Sam-ule'

20 mule team
20 Mule Team Wagons

20 mule team
20 Mule Team in Lone Pine

20 mule team
20 Mule Team in Lone Pine

20 mule team
Tommy Jefferson taking the lead out.

20 mule team
20 Mule Team in Lone Pine

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 The 20-Mule-Team & Borax Bill
by The Pacific Coast Borax Co.


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  20 Mule Team Days

 20 mule team
(Desert Magazine photo)

 20 mule team
20 Mule Team

 giant wagons
20 Mule Team
(1954 National Geographic Photo)
   
team by tracksThis is the true meaning of the term "team track." A [20 mule] team was literally drawn up beside a train for lading or unloading. Here a load of 24 tons of nearly pure borax is being loaded onto the AT&S.

George Schreyer

 borax bill
Borax Bill

 
20 Mule Team rounding a desert curve
(C.C. Pierce photo)

20 mule team
20 Mule Team Wagon

 borax
20 Mule Team - (Pacific Coast Borax Co. photo)

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 borax

 old ranger
Death Valley Days - "Old Ranger"

 borax soap

Commanding the 20 Mule Team

Fourteen, 16, 18 mules, plus 2 horses, supplied the draypower. The front span of mules were the "leaders"; the 2 horses next to the wagon, and hitched to the tongue, were the "wheelers." Twenty was the usual total, and 20 were needed on the steep incline of Windy Gap, heaving some thirty tons of dead weight, including the borax, the water cart, the unwieldy wagons themselves, and a vast assortment of tools, food supplies and cooking equipment attached to the sides. Altogether the outfit, in action, looked like a cross between a circus wagon and a Connecticut peddler's cart. Not since the construction of the Pyramids of Egypt had such an impressive rig crossed a desert.

Stretched out on the road, the leaders were a long 120 feet from the skinner, who rode the nigh wheeler or sat enthroned high on the front of the fore wagon. For such an entourage reins were useless. Instead, the skinner held a stout, cotton jerk line in one hand and a whip with a 6-foot stock and 22-foot lash in the other.

The single line was strung through rings in the harnesses of the twenty nigh mules to the bit of the nigh leader. To make a left turn, the skinner pulled steadily on the line. To make a right turn, the line was given a series of short jerks; the jerks made the leader instinctively throw up his head, which in turn pulled a strap attached to the right side of the bit-a system as simple as it was ingenious. The leader took its cues from the line; the rest followed.

Commanding a twenty-mule borax wagon was something like sailing a full-rigged schooner singlehanded, using an oar for a rudder. In managing the team the line was a help; the whip that could flick a fly from the ear of the fourth off mule without disturbing a hair was a help; the brakes were useful; the swamper riding the trail wagon and working its brake was occasionally credited with giving some assistance; and the box full of rocks kept on the seat to pelt perverse mules beyond the reach of the whip was indispensable. But all these aids were of minimum value in controlling the team, compared to the effectiveness of the skinner's tongue.

An inspired tongue and flexible vocal organs were what kept the animals on course and pulling together. The teamster's words had all the sting of his whip. That badge of trade was held in reserve as a threat and rarely applied, but from the moment a skinner mounted his seat with a "Git ep, ye God-damned - git ep," the flow of profane eloquence was unreserved. The vocabulary, to be sure, was limited. Mule skinners kept it that way on purpose, so they maintained, in order not to strain the intelligence of the animals or the lean-witted assistant, the swamper.

The profusion of four-, five-, and six-letter words had aim, thrust and cut of unmistakable meaning and nuance. Mules were sensitive beasts, each with a name, and when that name was linked with the bite of the driver's rebuke, ears perked up, a tail wilted, a quiver of terror or embarrassment seemed to pass over the hide, as though a lash had struck.

The yarn about the skinner who was converted overnight by a transient evangelist originated at Mojave. In fact, the gospel bearer was so proud of his proselyte that he accompanied him to the wagon next morning to see him off. With the preacher looking on from below, the skinner swung up to his high seat, sober, constrained, humbled.

There he sat for a long moment, trying to summon the magic words that normally set his team in motion. For the first time in his life he was tongue tied, totally bereft of his powers of persuasion. The evangelist had deprived him of the Biblical vocabulary and all the mortifying vulgarisms his mules understood. When he finally bellowed the command to "Get ep," without a single allusion to the Almighty or the organs of sex, the mules stood transfixed in their tracks, and reportedly all twenty turned their heads in unison to stare in wonderment at the master. The evangelist lost a good convert long before the wagons approached Windy Gap.

No question about it, the borax teamster felt compelled to lean rather heavily on diabolic conjuring. He had to be an unyielding tyrant, a wizard and an artist, in one. Yet despite the Satanic invocation, accidents did occur on the road to Mojave. Miscalculation of a hairbreadth in rounding one of the turns in Windy Gap, the failure of a leader to respond to a yank of the jerk line at a moment of urgency, or the tripping of a pointer in leaping the haul chain, could bring disaster. Everything depended on everything else, and a minor slip-up could send the whole outfit into a cliff or over the edge of one.


Excerpt from The Great California Deserts by W. Storrs Lee

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 Revolution in the Laundry
by W. Storrs Lee
20 mule team
Edward Sanborn Illustration of the 20 Mule Team

old ranger
20 Mule Team Model and the "Old Ranger"
(photo courtesy "The Old Ranger")
 
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Floyd R. Evans 1949 photographs of the Death Valley '49ers Centennial

(Photographs courtesy of Rich McCutchan)


20 Mule Team Centennial


20 Mule Team Centennial

 
20 Mule Team Centennial

last hurrah
20 Mule Team Centennial

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20 Mule Team and Western Links
Santa Clarita Valley History
Death Valley Days
Death Valley Days Radio Log (1)

  Death Valley Days Radio Log (2)
  Death Valley Days Radio Episodes - Listen online (3)

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20 Mule Team Reading
The 20-Mule-Team & its Famous Driver, Borax Bill by Pacific Coast
   Borax Co. (1981)

The Great California Deserts by W. Storrs Lee (1963)
The Story of Inyo by W.A. Chalfant (1933)
Twenty Mule Team Days in Death Valley by Harold O. Weight (1955)
ABE Books, making "out of print" books easier to find.


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new
20 Mule Team Fotocard Courtesy of Bob Pilatos
20 mule team

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1930s & 1940s Mt. Whitney Pack Trains  

High Sierra Panoramas  

Ghosts of the Past 1 - The 20 Mule Team  

Ghosts of the Past 2 - Owens Valley Aqueduct & Cottonwood Sawmill  
 

20 Mule Team Days

 

 Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp History

 

Manzanar High School Portraits & History


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This page was last updated on 27 August 2017