In 1890, Francis Marion Smith, more commonly known as "Borax" Smith, purchased an assortment of borax mining claims from William T. Coleman. One of those claims was in the Calico Mountains northeast of a new settlement called Barstow, California. At that time, Barstow was nothing more than the end of the track for the Sante Fe railroad, but it had already become a busy supply point for silver mining in the Calico Mountains. Smith became a major player in the area when he began mining borax and using the railroad at Dagget to ship his product. The mining claim became a town of its own with numerous buildings used by the company and the people who worked for it. That community became known as Borate.
Smith had been in the business of mining borax in Nevada for nearly 20 years. He was more successful than William T. Coleman, who owned numerous borax claims in California. When Coleman ran into money problems, Smith bought all his claims in California, including the ones in Death Valley, which were already producing steadily, and the one at Borate that had not been used at all. Ore was being hauled out of Death Valley using a 20-mule team. That team pulled two ore wagons and one other wagon carrying an iron water tank with 1,200 gallons of water to be used in getting the team and drivers across the desert.
Some references claim Smith was already using teams of 24 mules to move his borax in Nevada, but that is not where credit lies for the origin of the 20-mule team. The most popular tale involves two of Coleman's employees. A superintendent and a mule skinner decided that one team of 20 mules could do the same amount of work as two teams of 10 mules.
There may be truth in both stories, but the 20-mule teams didn't gain any notoriety until Smith took over the operations. He formed the Pacific Coast Borax Company which was later renamed U.S. Borax. The borax being sold was packaged with a picture of a 20-mule team on the front, and that photo became the company trademark. Eventually, the name became 20 Mule Team Borax.
When Smith founded the company town of Borate, he chose to use 20-mule teams for shipping. The ore had to be carried across that very remote and environmentally hostile country to the Sante Fe railroad. The nearest depot was in Dagget, California, which is almost due south of Borate beside the current-day Interstate 40 corridor. It was only about 10 miles in distance but began by getting out of the mountains down a narrow canyon and ended with the crossing of barren desert. It was a grueling two-day journey.
The 20 Mule Team Borax trademark took off with programs like Death Valley Days and an assortment of TV commercials. Even though the use of such teams lasted less than 20 years, their notoriety kept them in the spotlight. They were still making public appearances nearly 100 years after the first 20-mule team was hitched to the wagons.