Twenty Mule Team brings back Death Valley Days with remarkable craftsmanship

Living history: Twenty Mule Team pulls replicas of the iconic Death Valley boron ore wagons down the 2017 Rose Parade route. In the wagons are the family of Pres. Brad Ratliff and people involved in bringing this piece of history to life. Copyright 2017 R. Monteros


by Laura Berthold Monteros

The last time the Twenty Mule Team pulled freight wagons along Colorado Blvd. in the Rose Parade was 1999, when Pres. Dick Ratliff chose the 110-year-old wagons as his personal conveyance. They were back on Jan. 2, 2017 for the 128th Tournament of Roses Parade at the request of Pres. Brad Ratliff, Dick’s son, in an illustration of his theme “Echoes of Success.” He and his family filled two wagons, this time brand-new replicas of the original 1882 lorries that hauled 10 tons of borax each. The Ratliff family was a light load by comparison, so the wagons had to be weighted with huge water tanks.

“Mules need the weight to pull,” Preston Chiaro, president of the Death Valley Conservancy (DVC),  said adding that the weight also helps with braking. Plywood platforms and hay bales were included so the riders could stand and wave to the crowd.

The third appearance of the team was also an echo of its first Rose Parade appearance a century ago, when it also appeared in the inauguration parade of Pres. Woodrow Wilson. The wagons were decorated for the parade by FTD floral designers J. Keith White, AIFD CFD and Peter Samek, AIFD. White told The Rose Examiner during Deco Week that he wasn’t sure how he would flower what seem like gigantic wooden bins, but the photos show that they did an excellent job of nesting white and red roses in green garlands, with white tulips, carnations, baby breath, and other flowers as accents.

Be sure to check out the gallery below for photos and more information in the captions.

The commission to build the wagons came in January, 2016, and was given to Dave Engel, owner of Engel’s Coach Shop in Joliet, Mont. The shop builds and restores equine-drawn conveyances from sleds to broughams to Yellowstone coaches. He started on this project in February and finished a week before the Rose Parade, working from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. according to his wife Diane. She said while she helped a bit, her main job was running interference so Dave could concentrate on the work.

Chiaro said that each wagon took Dave and an assistant 1,800 hours to build. When we asked Dave, he replied, “I don’t know exactly. In the wagons, 14 hundred hours, but there’s more in dealing with the hubs. I haven’t figured it all out in the pressure to get ’em done.” During the 11 months, most of his work time was spent on that one project. “When we got down to the last two, maybe three months, I declined a lot more work,” he said. “Or postponed. In order to get this done.” The pressure was not just in the work. Chiaro said DVC had to raise funds to pay for it. By Dec. 31, they had raised $300,000.

Mule teams: Death Valley icons

Two fully-loaded wagons and a water tank, necessary for survival of the animals and two-man team, weighed 36 ½ tons, and hauled about the same weight as a tractor-trailer set-up. It takes 20 mules—actually, 18 mules and two horses at the wheels—to pull the outfit, but it took three trailers to transport the empty wagons and harnessing from Joliet to Pasadena. The water wagon used in the Rose Parade is local replica, but a new one will be built to complete the set. They will be kept at the Laws Railroad Museum in Bishop, Calif.

In 1882, there were five sets of wagons pulling ore from the mines in Death Valley across the Mojave Desert to the railroad. Only one set remains; three were likely lost in a flood and the fifth disappeared, Chiaro said. The extant wagons are kept at Harmony Borax Works near Furnace Creek, Death Valley National Park. They provided the template for the new outfit.

The 170-mile trip between the mine and railroad took 10 days. Along the way, there were food caches for the men and mules and a spring to refill the tank. The mules were driven with a single jerk line. There’s a great article with explanations and illustrations of the hitch on the Idaho Mountain Express website for those who want to know more. It was very helpful in preparing this article. Though Twenty Mule Teams remain icons of the Old West, they only operated for about six years, from 1883 to 1889.

Chiaro stated, “They never lost a mule or a wagon.”

Ore wagons: Beauty in simplicity

Though the wagons are plain-looking, they are actually something of a marvel of craftsmanship and engineering. Each 6-foot 8-inch back wheel supports 1,080 pounds, Engel said. Spokes were made of 2-inch thick planks and sawn wheels were fitted together and bound with iron tires that weigh 600 pounds each. Chiaro said the hubs are the most difficult to craft. Engel stated, “When you deal with it mathematically, it’s just like a buggy wheel. The difference is, it’s not a 40-pound buggy wheel.”

Until the Tournament of Roses came along, the biggest wagons Engel had built were the Yellowstone Pak Touring Coaches. The largest of those has a similar length of 18 feet, he said, but at 3,800 pounds weighs about half as much as the 8,300 pound lorries. The extra weight is mainly due to the iron. Despite the massive chains, bolts, and iron work—all forged by hand—Engel uses the “same ol’ coal forge as was used back then.” It’s 3 feet by 5 feet with a firepot that measures 8 inched by 10 inches. Except for the tires. “To heat those up, we built a big bonfire,” he said.


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