Steve Breckenridge
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The History Behind the Scale Model.

Your 20 Mule Team is an accurate 1/67th scale and authentic replica of the great 20 Mule Team Wagon Train which, over 100 years ago, hauled borax across the blistering deserts of Death Valley.

These great mule teams traveled 162 miles from Furnace Creek in Death Valley to Mojave, California; and from the mines at Old Borate to Dagget, the nearest railroad points. Their routes carried them over some of the most forbidding land on the face of the earth.

There was not a single house or any other sign of habitation along the Death Valley trail. One stretch of 60 miles was without water. In the summer, temperatures ranged from 136 degrees to 150 degrees.

The 20 Mule Teams could cover from 16 to 18 miles a day. Camp was made on the desert floor each night. The one-way trip, from mine to railroad point, took about ten days.


The borax wagons, said to be the largest and strongest of their kind, were built in Mojave, California . The rear wheels were 7 feet high. The front wheels, 5 feet high. Each wheel had steel tires 8 inches wide and 1 inch thick. The spokes of split oak, measured 5 ½ inches wide at the hub and 4 inches wide at the point. The axles were made of solid steel bars 3 ½  inch square. The wagon beds were 16 feet long, 4 feet wide and 6 feet deep.

The two wagons held 25 tons, or a carload, of borax. Two of them, together with a trailer tank wagon that carried 1200 gallons of water, constituted a train. Each borax wagon weighed 7800 pounds and the combined weight of the two, loaded, (exclusive of hay, grain, and other provisions) was more than 60,000 pounds. However, there is no record that one of them ever broke down on the trail during the many years they were in service.


The mules were all selected for their intelligence and were trained to answer to their names. Commands were given by the driver or "skinner." He controlled his team by shouting orders, calling the mules by name, and by means of a long "jerk" line. The "skinner" rode the "nigh-wheel" (left hand) mule. He held the "jerk" line which was 120 feet long. It ran through rings on the harness of the nigh animals up to the leader. A light iron rod called a jockey stick, with a snap hook on each end, connected the leaders. One end of it was fastened to the chin strap of the "off" (right hand) mule. The other end was fastened to the hame ring on the offside of the nigh mule. A steady pull on the line caused the team to go to the left. A jerk turned them to the right. Hence the name "jerk" line.


The driver had to know his mules and to be able to handle them under all conditions. He had to be a practical veterinarian to take care of them when they got sick, a blacksmith to replace any shoes that came off, and something of a wheelwright to make any needed repairs.Skinner

One of the best drivers was Bill Parkinson, better known as "Borax Bill." He had a most emphatic and eloquent vocabulary to awaken the necessary amount of energy in balky mules. On occasion, he backed up his verbal commands with a long black-snake whip.


The driver's assistant was called a "swamper" and his duties were numerous. In going up grades, he had to get out and walk beside the team. In going down grades, he operated the brake on the rear wagon. When the train made camp he assisted in unhooking and unharnessing the mules and in feeding them. He gathered fuel for the fire, cooked the meals and washed the dishes.Swamper

The building of railroads to all portions of the great West rapidly limited the necessity for the 20 Mule Teams. Before long the 20 Mule Team Borax name and "Borax Bill" were relics of the past. They did, however, perform and interesting and useful part in the service of man and the development of our country.


It was relatively easy to drive the 20 Mule Team along a straight road. However, swinging a curve in a mountain pass or over rough terrain presented a real test of driver and team.

Sections of the 20 Mule Team were chosen and trained to perform special jobs. As the team started around a sharp curve, the chain tended to be pulled into a straight line between the lead mules and the wagon. Therefore, in order to keep the chain going around the curve, some of the span of mules were ordered to leap the chain and pull at an angle away from the curve. (see below) These mules the "pointers," the "sixes," and the "eights" would step along sideways until the corner had been turned.The Total Team Of Mules

Swinging a curve successfully was a real demonstration of the training and intelligence of the mules as well as the skill of the driver


These mules were chosen for intelligence because they had to lead the others. The two lead mules also have freight
Lead Mules

bells on their harness so the other mules can hear where the lead mules are going. (See picture above.)


These mules were workers and did not require as much special training.

The Swing Team

However, they had to know their names and had to respond to commands to "pull" and "stop". (See picture above.)


These mules were specially trained to leap over the chain when the mule train turned a corner.

The "Pointers" MulesThe "Sixes" MulesThe "Eights" Mules

They had to respond to commands by name. In turning a corner, their training prevented the wagon from going over a cliff or into a bank. (See pictures above.)


These were usually the largest and strongest of the mules. The driver rode the "nigh wheeler" (left hand mule) and from

this position operated the brake on the front wagon.