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Francis Marion 'Borax' Smith

Francis Marion Smith
(aka "Borax" Smith and the "Borax King") (February 2, 1846 - August 27, 1931)

Francis Marion Smith was born in 1825 and died in Oakland in 1931 at the age of 85. He is buried in the city's Mountain View Cemetery along "Millionaires Row".

Smith was born in Richmond, Wisconsin in 1846. At the age of 21, he left Wisconsin to prospect for mineral wealth in the American West.

In 1872, while working as a woodcutter, he discovered a rich supply of ulexite at Teel's Marsh in Nevada. He staked a claim, started a company with his brother Julius, and established a borax works at the edge of the marsh to concentrate the borax crystals and separate them from dirt and other impurities. In 1877, Scientific American reported that the Smith Brothers shipped their product in a 30-ton load using two large wagons with a third wagon for food and water drawn by a 24-mule team over a 160-mile stretch of desert between Teel's Marsh and the Central Pacific Railroad at Wadsworth, Nevada, some six years before similar twenty mule teams were introduced into Death Valley, California.


Hauling borax out of Death Valley was a great task. Originally designed in the 1870s, 20 Mule Teams were the most efficient means of transporting the heavy loads. Before the railroad was built to Mojave, 20 mule teams and wagons hauled borax 175 miles to the harbor at San Pedro.

Francis Marion "Borax" Smith (founder of Pacific Coast Borax, later to become U.S. Borax) tried in 1894 to use a steam tractor to replace the mule teams. The steam tractor, known as 'Old Dinah', often broke down and frequently became bogged down in mud and soft sand. The mule teams were put back in service.

Old Dinah
Photo of Old Dinah in the Borax Museum at Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley.
Photo: George Schreyer, www.girr.org.


"Old Dinah" now sits at Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley after her boiler blew out for the second time.

Borax Smith became convinced that a railroad was the only answer to his transportation problem. This would be the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad. Originally conceived to extend from Tonopah, Nevada to the tidewaters at San Diego, the railroad never reached this goal.

The first rails were laid at Ludlow, CA on November 19, 1905. Construction proceeded at about one mile per day and sometime around March 1906 rails are laid through the Rasor Ranch area.

The greatest challenge that the crew faced was the 12 mile ascent through the Alexander Hills north of Dumont by way of the Amargosa River Gorge.

At 7:45 a.m. on August 5, 1929, the northbound No. 25 train derails near Soda Lake (6 miles past Rasor) after heavy rains wash out a bridge causing the death of two employees. Read:

Abandonment of the T&T is authorized at the end of 1939. After three postponements a 'Last Train' special is run June 14, 1940. Employees and wives mark the occasion. Dismantlement of the line does not proceed until 1942. The War Department contracts with Sharp & Fellows to pick-up the line with work beginning on July 18, 1942. The iron rails are used for the war effort. Sometime in the Spring of 1943 the rails crossing through Rasor Ranch are removed.



Pictured: Herman Jones, Wash Cahill (T&T Super), Charlie Brown and Clarence M. Rasor.
Photo: Shoshone Museum, Gilliam/Kelley Collection.


Playing cards in the company store was a popular unofficial pastime in Borate.
Pictured: Louis Rasor, "Slippery Dick," Leslie Chapman, W.W. "Wash" Cahill, and "Brig" Young.
Photo: Mojave River Valley Museum, Cahill/Clooney Collection.

"Clarence Rasor was surveyor who laid out the T&T road bed around 1901 give or take a year or so. Louis was his brother. Louis Rasor did a lot of surveying for the US Borax Company, the Ryan, Lila C and Gerstley deposits as I recall. Rasor Road was named after Clarence." —Harry Rosenberg, 2004-Nov-1

Francis Marion 'Borax' Smith's Grave Site

Mountain View Cemetery
Alameda County
California, USA
Plot: Section 35 ('Millionaire's Row')

The following has been supplied by: www.girr.org.
Please go to their site for more information - It is a GREAT site!

info placardThis placard accompanied the photo and history of Old Dinah. This mechanical marvel was purchased in 1894 and it was intended to replace the 20-Mule Teams that hauled borax from the Borate to Daggett. Old Dinah required constant maintenance and had major problems with sand and steep grades. After a one year trial, mules proved more productive and reliable, but they too, were replace later by a narrow gauge railroad in 1898.

Old Dinah got one more chance when borax operations resumed in Death Valley in 1904. Trying to avoid the expense of a railroad into Death Valley, the Borax Company graded a 98 mile tractor road from the borax mines to the railroad. Dinah broke down on her first trip, and hand to be towed home by the very mules she had tried so long to replace. In 1910, Old Dinah was sold to a freighter for use hauling supplies between Beatty and the Keane Wonder Mine. After a couple of years, Dinah broke down in the Daylight Pass and her owner abandoned her in disgust. In 1932, Harry Gower rescued Old Dinah and brought her to her present location at the Furnace Creek Ranch.


park service signMost of what I know about the history of this tractor is on the sign provided by the Park Service, a couple of comments about it that I found in the Visitor Center bookstore and the displays at the Furnace Creek Ranch Borax Museum. This tractor was such an attractive display, that I took an inordinate number of pictures. Old Dinah is currently on display in front of the Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley National Park.


20 mule teamDinah was built to replace the famous 20 Mule Teams (actually 18 mules and 2 horses) that had been used to haul borax out of the salt flats of Death Valley. It took the team 10 days one way to haul 24 tons of borax (a valuable mineral used in glass, soaps, fluxes and glues) from Death Valley to the railhead 165 miles distant.


team trackJust as an aside, this is the true meaning of the term "team track." A team was literally drawn up beside a train for loading or unloading. Here a load of 24 tons of nearly pure borax is being loaded onto the AT&SF.


old dinah Old Dinah was a tricycle type steam tractor with a upright boiler and gear drive. From the wear patterns on the ridged front and cleated rear wheels, the wheels were run as they are, steel rims against hard dirt. Old Dinah was not a real speedster at 3,5 mph at best, but faster than mules. Old Dinah had no sign of having any brakes at all. From information I found in a book on borax mining, Old Dinah burned oil, however I didn't find any sign of an oil tank. Also, the placard in the museum indicated that it burned coal. The tank on the ground was probably its water supply. There is a saddle above the frame that clearly held the tank and there was a photo in a book showing the tank in that location. Old Dinah must have been hard to feed, as whatever water was available in this desert has large quantities of dissolved salts, the worst up to 6%.


heavy wagonsOld Dinah was claimed to be unsuccessful even though it could haul much more borax in a load than the mules. Compare the size of these wagons to the ones on the 20 mule team above. I estimate that the load was probably 3 times that of the mule drawn wagons (hence the steel wheels) and it probably made the trip in about half the time. However, the reference books indicated that it had a tendency to sink into soft dirt (requiring the mule teams to pull it out) and it tended to rear up on steep grades.


steam engineOld Dinah was powered by two cylinders situated between the frame members just forward of the boiler. Part of the mechanism is gone, but the crossheads were apparently connected to a crank shaft that was held in the remaining bearings. The cylinders were fed with piston valves, a little unusual for an machine built before the turn of the century.


differential gearingThe missing shaft was connected to this large gear probably by a short gear train that fit within the double frame rails on that side. Inside this main gear are smaller differential gears that transferred torque to the wheel drive gears.


drive gearingThe wheel drive gears engaged a circular rack inside the drive wheel. When Old Dinah was moving forward, the dirt and rocks that fell into the rack would drop out before they got to the drive gear. I imagine that this gear was run mostly dry so that it would not collect crud.


drawbarOld Dinah transferred its tractive effort from the main wheel shaft to the drawhead at the back of the tractor through bars bolted to the axle assembly and the drawhead.


springsOld Dinah had a sprung suspension of shorts. Two coil springs under the tractor on each side supported the weight of the tractor and a third spring was on top of the front wheel assembly. Even so, it appears that its suspension travel was severely limited, probably not more than 2" total. It must have been a pretty harsh ride.


fireboxOld Dinah's firebox was small. I didn't see any signs of an oil burner in the firebox. Since the cylinders were quite small and the tractor's speed was probably quite low, the small firebox probably still allowed the boiler to make enough steam.


grate The grate was pretty small, but it looks like a coal grate. It wouldn't need grate shakers as all of the grate could be easily reached to be cleaned of clinkers.


Supplied by: www.girr.org




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