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Francis "Borax" Smith

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Francis "Borax" Smith

For other people named Francis Smith, see Francis Smith (disambiguation).
Francis Marion Smith
Borax" Smith
Born (1846-02-02)February 2, 1846
Died August 27, 1931(1931-08-27) (aged 85)

Francis Marion Smith (February 2, 1846 – August 27, 1931) (once known nationally and internationally as "Borax Smith" and "The Borax King" [1][2]) was an American miner, business magnate and civic builder in the Mojave Desert, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Oakland, California.

Frank Smith created the extensive interurban public transit Key System in Oakland, the East Bay, and San Francisco.

Early mining career

Francis Marion 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, starting in Nevada.

In 1872, while working as a woodcutter, he discovered a rich supply of Ulexite at Teel's Marsh, near the town he would found ten years later, Marietta, Nevada. He staked a claim, started a company with his brother Julius Smith, 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 for 160 miles (260 km) across the Great Basin Desert from Marietta to Wadsworth, Nevada where the nearest Central Pacific Railroad siding was.

The Borax King

Death Valley

Smith then acquired properties at Columbus Marsh and Fish Lake. Then in 1884, Smith bought out his brother. While reduced operations continued at Teels, Smith now focused his energies and borax mining in Death Valley and at the 20 Mule Team Canyon mine in the Amargosa Range to the east. In 1890, upon William Tell Coleman's Harmony Borax Works financial overextension, he acquired Coleman's borax works and holdings in western Nevada, the Death Valley region, and in the Calico Mountains near Yermo, California. Smith then consolidated them with his own holdings to form the Pacific Coast Borax Company in 1890.

Smith's Pacific Coast Borax Company then established and aggressively promoted the 20-Mule-Team Borax brand and trademark, which was named after the Twenty Mule Teams that Coleman had used, from 1883 to 1889, to transport borax out of Death Valley to the closest railroad in Mojave, California (and as Smith himself had developed even earlier at his borax work in Nevada - see above). The idea came from Smith's Advertising Manager, Stephen Mather, later owner of Thorkildsen-Mather Borax Company, and in 1916 appointed the first Chief of the new National Park Service.

Other mines

Activity at Harmony Borax Works in Death Valley ceased with the development of the richer Colemanite borax deposits at Borate in the Calico Mountains, which were discovered in 1882 and began operations in 1890, where they continued until 1907. Initial hauling to the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad was done again by the 20 mule teams, but were retired as soon as a Smith completed the 12-mile (19 km) long Borate and Daggett Railroad.

When the deposits at Borate neared depletion, work began near Death Valley Junction to develop nearby claims at what became known as the Lila C Mine in 1907. Again, long mule teams were used in the early years while Smith constructed the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad connecting with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad across the Mojave River and Kelso Dunes at Ludlow, California.

In 1899, Smith had joined forces with Richard C. Baker to form the Borax Consolidated, Ltd.[3] Together, they formed a multinational mining conglomerate, in which Smith had the controlling interest. Baker expanded the company's foreign acquisitions in Italy, Turkey, and South America and was largely responsible for capitally financing the corporation's expansion.[4]

While operating at Borate, Smith purchased the Boric acid mineral rights at the "Suckow claims" at Boron, California between Barstow and Mojave and east of present day Edwards Air Force Base. The incorporation of Borax Consolidated, Ltd. included the Sterling Borax Company and the Suckow Property.[5] Though never developed by Smith's Pacific Coast Borax Company, his corporate successors have obtained all their borax minerals from the Suckow claims for more than 75 years, and estimate remaining deposits will last for nearly as long. It is now California's largest open-pit mine, which is also the largest borax mine in the world, and where today almost half of the world's borates are currently mined.[6][7]

Last mining

In 1913, Smith became financially overextended and had to turn over his assets to creditors who refused to extend new loans. After winning a lawsuit to protect his wife's interest in a silver mine in Tonopah, Nevada, he acquired mineral rights to a large section of Searles Lake in the Searles Valley over the Panamint Range from Death Valley, in northern San Bernardino County, California. However, finding a profitable way to convert the extensive lake brines into borax and other important commercial mineral salts products proved elusive for roughly a decade.

In the meantime, he outbid the new owners of his company for the rights to a rich borax discovery in Nevada's Muddy Mountains, in Callville Wash, under present day Lake Mead. He called his operations there the Anniversary Mine as the claims were acquired on the anniversary of his marriage to his second wife. The profits from this claim provided the capital to develop the Searles Lake deposits when a young chemist, Henry Helmers, discovered a profitable process for refining the lake brines into marketable products. He built the Trona Railway, a Short-line railroad, to ship the products to the Union Pacific Railroad connection at Searles, California. The operation and railroad is now under Searles Valley Minerals.

Other accomplishments

Smith married Mary Rebecca Thompson (Mollie) and settled in Oakland, California in 1881 where in 1896 he acquired an estate and constructed a mansion, across the street from the MacArthur and Park Blvd. location of Oakland High School's current campus, where he lived until 3 years prior to his death in 1931. After Mollie died in 1905 at age 55, he remarried in 1906 to Evelyn Kate Ellis, a Shelter Island socialite.

Rail and Real Estate

File:Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad logo.gif

Smith also developed a special interest in expanding his business into rail transportation and real estate. His first railroad, the narrow-gauge Borate and Daggett Railroad was built only to ship borax. Later, however, Smith created the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad, not only to ship borax, but also with an eye on the ore and passengers from the boomtown of Rhyolite, Nevada in the Bullfrog Mining District. This line was built in direct competition with the "Copper King" William A. Clark's Las Vegas and Tonopah Railroad.[8]

Temescal Creek in north Oakland to attract riders to the trolleys on weekends.

Smith commissioned America’s first Reinforced Concrete building, the Pacific Coast Borax Company refinery, in Alameda, California in 1893.[9] The architect was Ernest L. Ransome.

Charitable work

With his fortune from the biggest Borax company in the world, in 1892 Smith purchased 435 acres (1.76 km2) and built a thirty-five room summer estate, Presdeleau, on Shelter Island at the upper end of Long Island in New York.[10] Smith was involved in some way in most significant charitable and community events during his lifetime, and frequently made his estates in Oakland and Shelter Island available for fundraising activities, involving his children in running games and booths.

Frank Smith served as an Electoral College presidential elector in the 1912 election. He made his fine carriage available for use by Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft during their visits to his adopted hometown of Oakland. The carriage is now on display at the Oakland Museum of California.

Last years

After suffering a major stroke at age 82 in 1928, Smith moved with his wife from their Oakland mansion and estate into a smaller residence across Lake Merritt in the Adams Point neighborhood. Prior to moving, several large pieces of the estate's gardens had been sold on which more modest homes were built. With the stock market crash of 1929, no buyer could be found for the remaining estate and shortly after his death the mansion was demolished after many remarkable and marketable fixtures were removed and sold.

Francis Marion Smith died in Oakland in 1931 at the age of 85. He is buried in the Mountain View Cemetery of Oakland, along "Millionaires Row".


Supporting his first wife's desire to provide homelike accommodations for orphaned girls, Smith used part of his fortune to finance the construction and operation of 13 residential homes. Each home had a house mother selected by Mrs. Smith, who was directed to provide as close to a normal homelife for the girls under her care as possible. In addition to the homes, Smith provided a social hall called The Home Club, that was located on the site of the current Oakland High School. Only the stairway from Park Blvd. remains today. The homes continued in operation for many decades, and several are still standing. As the State took over providing for orphans, the funds in the Mary R. Smith Trust were redirected to providing nursing education for qualified young women.

The Western Railway Museum's archives wing is named for Francis Marion "Borax" Smith. The museum, located in Solano County, California on California State Route 12, includes several operating street cars and transbay trains that operated on the Key System lines in Oakland and adjacent cities on the east side of San Francisco Bay.

The Francis Marion Smith Park, on land from a portion of his former estate donated by he and his wife, is on Park Boulevard in Oakland.

In Death Valley, Smith Mountain, a 5,915 feet (1,803 m) peak in the Amargosa Range, is named in his honor.[11]

On Shelter Island, NY, Smith Street and Smith Cove are named for him.

"Borax" Smith is a character in the historical fiction novel Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold (ISBN 0-7868-8632-3), and the main character in Jack London's novel Burning Daylight was partially based on his life.[12]

See also


  • Hildebrand, GH. (1982) Borax Pioneer: Francis Marion Smith. San Diego: Howell-North Books. (ISBN 0-8310-7148-6)
  • Smith, Francis Marion. (Unpublished) circa 1925. Autobiographical Notes on His Early Life.

External links

  • Harmony Borax Works of Death Valley National Park website
  • The Borax Museum, Death Valley
  • The Borax King's Estate, on Shelter Island, New York
  • Francis Marion Smith's tomb

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