Sunday, October 13, 2013

Shutdown Vacation in Death Valley: Harmony Borax Works

So one of the big things that brought people into Death Valley (on purpose) before air conditioning was mining.  Turns out borax was all over the place- at first they were just scraping it off the ground, but soon they turned to mining it.  For the first 6 years they used 20 mule teams pulling two large wagons to transport it out of the valley - hence the "20 Mule Team Strength" Borax you can buy today - and to maximize the profit on that they would process and purify the borax on the spot.  This meant they couldn't operate in the hottest summer months until they started shipping by train and the could afford to send the unpurified ore in the summer if not year-round.  After a couple decades, other easier sources of borax and other minerals and metals were found and the activity in Death Valley tapered off.

Meanwhile, the Harmony site was one of the oldest of it's kind, and also very well preserved.  There's no ranger or interpreter on site, so for the federal shutdown they originally closed off the parking lot, but people were just parking on the side of the highway and walking 200 yards to explore it.  Common sense then prevailed and the park decided it would better to just open the parking lot rather than have people crossing a 55 mph highway.  Seeing as it takes at least 3 hours of driving to get there from anywhere substantial, Death Valley has the advantage of not really being overly-supervised and the employees have more sympathy for visitors.  (This doesn't mean they are totally ignoring the shutdown rules, just that they have a little more leeway.)

The site is built into the side of a hill because it's next to a mine and they wanted to do a little work as possible in terms of moving things around.  One day in Death Valley and you'll feel the same.

The walking trail around Harmony is only about 1/4 mile.  Easy walking, though if you are in a wheelchair it might be tough to navigate.

One of the "20 Mule Team" wagons.  The big tank was for water.  Only purified Borax made the trip in these, anything else was a huge waste.

To the left you can the remains of the foundations of other buildings.  Most of the workers were Chinese and they lived in tents.  In the distance are the ruins of a few other structures, but those are on a dirt road and those were blocked off for the shutdown.  Like I said, they are using some common sense in opening sites, but they don't want to have to rescue anybody, either.

Here's where they purified the borax.  It went thought two heating processes and in the 2nd cooling the pure borax would crystallize on metal poles and leather strips (like rock candy) and they they would knock it off into the wagons.

The boiler.

Bring water everywhere.  I don't care what time of year it is.  Harmony is pretty close to the Visitor's Center (closed for the shutdown) which has maps, water, bathrooms, and a cool gift shop.  Furnace Creek also has a privately run hotel- resort (the park campsites are shut down).  That also has a couple restaurants, a gift shop, a tiny borax museum, public bathrooms, a post office, and a golf course.  Oh, and cell phone reception.

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