Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Francis Marion "Borax" Smith

What do 20 Mule Team Borax, the Claremont Hotel, the Key Route Inn, The Key System, and Idora Park all have in common?  They all owe their existence to the same man, longtime Oakland resident Francis Marion "Borax" Smith.

Francis Marion "Borax" Smith
Though "Borax" Smith was born in Wisconsin, his personal history, and his fortune, were tied up in the American West.  He left the Midwest at 21 to prospect in Nevada and by 1867 had staked a profitable claim near Marietta, Nevada.  He founded a company and built a borax refinery on the site.  The next twenty years were a whirlwind of activity, with Smith opening more mines and consolidating his control over borax production in California.  In 1890, Smith consolidated all of his companies and mines into the Pacific Coast Borax Company.  This founding of this company was also his first avenue into the Bay Area.  The Pacific Coast Borax Refinery was located in Alameda, on what is now the Alameda Naval Air Base.  The building still stands and is actually very easy to find. It is the only red brick building on the base, and sits near the south end of the base proper.  This building has continued relevance today since it, and the grounds that surround it, are included in the Superfund toxic cleanup area that the federal government defined for the Alameda Naval Air Station.  Elevated levels of boron in the soil, as well as the presence of boron in the groundwater, mean that the site of the factory is in need of environmental rehabilitation.  The consolidation of these business concerns also led to the creation and promotion of Smith's longest lasting and most well known project, 20 Mule Team Borax.  The brand takes its name from the 20-30 mule wagon teams that were used to pull massive wagons of borax ore from Smith's mines in Death Valley to nearby railway spurs.
Remains of the Pacific Coast Borax Company
Smith had a great deal of success with his mineral concerns for the rest of his life, and even today some of his mines continue to be profitable.  In particular the Sukow Mine, located between Barstow and Mojave and near Edwards Air Force Base, is the largest open-pit mine in California and produces roughly half the world's borate supply.

Smith is better known in the Bay Area for his rail and real estate companies.  He had a history of developing rail companies in Nevada and Southern California and he brought that experience into the East Bay when he founded the Key System with business partner Frank C. Havens.  Comprising half of a larger business plan, with the other half being a real estate development firm, Smith and Havens were responsible for both the creation of rail lines in the immediate East Bay, as well as determining the location of a large number of neighborhoods and services.  Many major streets still follow the paths that Smith and Havens chose for the lines of the Key System.  Smith and Havens also developed some of the largest recreational attractions in the East Bay during the first quarter of the 20th century.  The Claremont Hotel and the Key Route Inn (formerly located at 27th and Broadway but no longer standing) were among their projects.  Idora Park was the first, and largest, "trolley park" of the East Bay.  The park was built on land that Smith's real estate company owned, on Telegraph Avenue between 56th and 58th, and was served by the Key System.  This pattern, of purchasing land to develop and then running rail lines to the new attractions served Smith and Havens well and resulted in their rapidly increasing personal fortunes as the East Bay developed through the first part of the 20th century.
A mule team hauling borax ore from Smith's mines
Smith lived in the Adam's Point neighborhood towards the end of his life after he and his wife had moved out of a much larger mansion in the Oakland hills.  During the Great Depression a buyer could not be found for the mansion and it was destroyed.  You can still see a part of the grounds in Francis Marion Smith Park on park Blvd. in Oakland.  The land was donated to the city by Smith and his wife before his death.  Smith is buried in Mountainview Cemetery in Oakland along "Millionaire's Row".

Getting There By Bike...
It's hard not to experience some part of "Borax" Smith's contribution to East Bay history if you spend a day riding around the East Bay.  Many of the major streets, including Broadway, San Pablo, Telegraph, and College Ave had rail service from the Key System.  The Claremont Hotel is a local landmark and is a well known site near the base of Claremont Canyon.
There are some specific sites to visit though.  The Claremont Hotel is located at 41 Tunnel Road and is easiest to reach by taking either Claremont or Ashby towards the hills.  The remains of the Pacific Coast Borax Company buildings are near the corner of Main and Atlantic on the west end of Alameda.  The remains of the building are made of red brick and are labeled Building 163.


  1. Great article. Amazing how people shape the geography of a place, and in turn, the culture. Thank you, as always, for your work! It is a blessing.

  2. I never knew that anything remained of the Pacific Coast Borax Company buildings. Thanks for the info!

  3. I enjoyed reading this article about my great grandfather. I hope to see this area and show my kids. Thank you!

  4. Thank you for reading the article! I was very flattered to find out that a family member of Francis Marion Smith had read and enjoyed my work. He was quite a notable Bay Area figure and no local history of the late-nineteenth century would be complete without mentioning him and his projects.