Borax Visitor Center
The Borax Visitor Center sits atop a massive tailings pile on the rim of a man-made crater -- part of an active mining operation that daily extracts thousands of tons of borates from rich deposits that are processed in the adjacent facility.
The scenic overlook above the Visitors Center provides an impressive vista of the up-to 700-ft. deep, mile long gash. It is California's largest open pit mine, where half of the world's industrial borates supply comes from. The wind whips grit into our faces as we watch tiny specks moving on the pit's many tiers -- specks that are large mining vehicles.
The Borax Visitor Center is a pair of large Quonset huts containing exhibits, a gift shop and a video theater. Outside exhibits/photo ops include a tire from a 190-ton truck, a shovel bucket, and a line of wind vanes. Since you can't actually drive into the working facility (unless you take a wrong turn into the employee parking lot, like we did), the center explains some of what goes on down below.
Borate is the special sauce of so many products: used as a micronutrient in agriculture, in ceramic finish, in fiberglass, flame retardant, and wood treatments. Borates are essential in the heat resistance of computer and TV flat screens. The raw ore is clawed from the ground, refined and processed, bagged and transported to where it's needed.
Older people probably best know borax by its association with the 20-Mule Team Borax laundry booster, which had its promotional heyday in the 1950s and early 1960s. Borax sponsored the TV show Death Valley Days; every week the audience might see a TV commercial version of the famous mules.
The 20-mule team was an earlier, grittier version of the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales, historic beasts in the early days of a company, reborn as iconic brand symbols. While the 20-mule team would never beat those princely beer steeds in a beauty contest, you don't want to be hitched to Clydesdales when finessing your loaded mining wagon along a curved, crumbling precipice.
The Visitor Center explains this mule team skill -- "Swinging a Curve." Specially trained mules would leap their attaching chain and pull at an angle to counterbalance the rest of the team until the corner was turned. There were five 20-mule teams on the road at any given time, and backing up was a bitch, so the lead mules were outfitted with warning bells.
By the 20th century, the mules were retired from hauling ore, their new role to pull a load of national Borax marketing. They appeared at sales events across the country, and could be seen at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, and the 1915 Panama Exposition in San Diego.
There are no live mules at the Center, but you can marvel at the replica mule team of 20 fiberglass animals hitched to original wagons that hauled borax from 1883-1889.
Borax at Home
The Center exhibits what you might expect from a corporation proud of its history -- artifacts from the early days and explanations of the geology, manufacturing and varied uses.
One wall is devoted to "Borax at Home," showcasing shelves of consumer goods -- cookware, toys, personal hygiene products, home insulation, and of course, laundry detergent. Borax is not really toxic, akin to table salt, so from a PR perspective it's probably one of the less onerous open pit stories to tell. Visitors Center volunteers make sure you receive a free piece of borax, translucent and cheery in its little souvenir bag.
A giant borax crystal is exhibited in a sealed hydration unit. The specimen was found in 2001 submerged in water in an underground passage shored up with timbers, which infused the normally colorless-to-white borax with a brown tinge over the period of a half century or so it took to form.
Death Valley Days
The borates pit is forever illuminated by its historic TV connections. A Center display describes Ronald Reagan as a company spokesperson and show host on Death Valley Days from 1965-66, while a TV monitor plays episodes. Another display points out that three cast members of the original Star Trek TV series appeared on Death Valley Days.
Borax, still the miracle substance, continues to find a place in pop culture. For example, fans of the CW series Supernatural see it used in that show's 6th and 7th jump-the-shark seasons as a handy monster-hunter acid for slowing down Leviathan shapeshifters.