||The following are some brief
excerpts from the chapter "Freighting in the Desert"
from "Illustrated Sketches of Death Valley" by John
The entire length of this desert road between Death Valley and
Mojave is 164.5 miles. There was, of course, in all that distance
no sign of human habitation. In case of sickness, accident or
disaster, either to themselves or the teams, the men could not
hope for help until some other team came along over the trail.
The task he had set for himself was the building of ten wagons
so large that any of them would carry at least ten tons. The
reader who is familiar with railroads, in fact any reader who
has traveled at all by rail, must have seen these legends painted
on the sides of freight cars: " Capacity 28,000 lbs."
"Capacity 40,000 lbs." (rarely) "Capacity 50,000
lbs." With this in mind, consider that these wagons for
hauling borax out of Death Valley were to haul ten tons, or half
a car load each - that a train of two wagons was to carry a load,
not for one of the old-style, but for one of the modern, well-built
freight cars, and carry the load, too, not over a smooth iron
20 tramway, but up and down the rocky defiles and canons of one
of the most precipitous mountain ranges in the world, the Panamint.
These were probably the largest wagons ever used.
The teams consisted of eighteen mules and two horses. As was
said, the man who handles four trained horses before a society
coach, or eight huge Percherons before a safe-carrying track,
may think himself a pretty good driver, but in the desert, to
use the desert term, he would be a sick raw-hide beside the man
who steers eighteen mules with a jerk-line. To compare the one
with the other is like comparing a Corinthian yachtsman, or the
deck-hand of a harbor scow, to the captain of a Black Ball liner,
if we may use a nautical simile in a story of the desert.
The horses and mules are harnessed up in pairs. The horses are
attached to the wagon at the tongue, and a great handsome 2,800-pound
team it is - gentle, obedient, and strong as a locomotive. Ahead
of them stretch the mules, their double-trees geared to a chain
that leads from a forward axle. The most civilized pair are placed
in the lead and the next in intelligence just ahead of the tongue,
while the sinful, the fun-loving, and the raw-hides fill in between.
The nigh leader has a bridle with the strap from the left jaw
shorter than the other, and from this bridle runs a braided cotton
rope a half an inch m diameter, through fair-leaders on each
mule to the hand of the driver, who sits on a perch on the front
end of the wagon box just eight feet above the ground. That rope
is known as the jerk-line, and its length is not far from 120
feet. The team that draws the desert freight train stretches
out for more than 100 feet in front of the wagon.
It is wonderfully interesting, too, to watch the mules as they
turn a sharp corner in a canon, or on a trail where it rounds
a sharp turn on the mountain side. Span after span, near the
end of the tongue, often without a word from the driver, will
jump over the long chain and pull away on a tangent that the
heavy load may be dragged around. Even then the novice wonders
how they succeed, for some of the curves are so sharp that the
leaders pull in one direction while the wagons are traveling
very nearly in an opposite one.
Quite as interesting as the teams and the freight trains of the
desert are the men who handle them. The drivers receive from
$100 to $120 per month, and the swampers about $75. They furnish
their own food and bedding. The bill of fare served at a desert
freight camp includes bacon, bread, and beans for a foundation,
with every variety of canned goods known to the grocery trade
for the upper strata. They carry Dutch ovens for their baking,
pans for frying, and. tin kettles for stewing. On the whole,
however, they do not eat much fancy canned stuff, and a cobbler
made of canned peaches serves for both pie and cake.
As one may suppose, the effect of desert life upon the teamsters
is almost every way deteriorating. The men who drove from Mojave
were out twenty days for each half day in the settlement, and
the settlement itself was but a collection of shanties on as
arid a part of the desert as can be found outside of Death Valley.
They were not men of education or very wide experience. Their
topics of conversation were few. The driver and his swamper had
very little to say to each other. To all intents and purposes
each lived a solitary life. Being thus alone they grew morose
and sullen. Their discomforts by night and their misery by day
in the desert heat added to their ill nature. They became in
a way insane. It was necessary whenever a team came in to inquire
of each man separately whether he was perfectly satisfied with
the other, and whether a change was desired or would be objected
to. If the least ill will was displayed by one toward the other,
a new swamper was provided, lest a fight follow on the desert
and one kill the other. Even the greatest precaution could not
prevent murder. The soil at Saratoga Springs, in the Amargosa
Valley, is stained with blood, a human corpse once swung from
a telegraph pole in Daggett, and a rounded pile of stones in
Windy Gap is marked "Grave of W. M. Shadley," all because
human flesh and human brain could not endure the awful strife
of life on the desert. Because these are phases, and illustrative
phases, of life on the desert, the stories of these crimes should
Freighting on the Desert [pdf file]