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July 1905: Death Valley visits Streator

A vintage post card image of a 20-mule team.
A vintage post card image of a 20-mule team.

July 1905 saw the visit to Streator of two forms of transportation — one very slow and the other very fast — but both with links to Death Valley, Calif.

The first was the arrival for a few days' visit of a 20-mule team. The second was the fast passage through town of the Coyote Special train on the Santa Fe railroad line seeking a speed record from Los Angeles to Chicago.

Streator Free Press newspaper stories tell the tales.

Twenty Mule Caravan to Arrive Tonight

(Monday, July 10, 1905) “Borax Bill,” who is driving the famous 20-mule borax team, will arrive in town this evening. This strange caravan, which consists of 20 fine large mules, hitched abreast to large wagons and a water tank, made a train of mules and wagons 176 feet long.

“Borax Bill” controls the long string of mules with a jerk line and handles the ponderous outfit as easily as a farmer handles a span of horses hitched to a load of hay.

When the fair at St. Louis closed, the 20-mule borax team started to tour the country and “Borax Bill” has driven the outfit over 20,000 miles.

The team left Wenona this morning and will arrive here late this afternoon. Tomorrow morning and afternoon the team will be driven around our streets.

B.L. Harris, manager of the outfit, says the team will leave for La Salle Thursday morning.

Editor’s note: The 20-mule teams were created to haul borax from Death Valley from 1883 to 1889. Borax is a mineral most notably used for soap and detergent. The rig actually was 18 mules and two horses that pulled two wagons that could carry 10 tons of ore and a 1,200-gallon water tank wagon. The 162-mile route covered rough territory where temperatures could soar to 150 degrees.

The teams were replaced by a rail spur in 1890 but continued as an advertising promotion. The appearance of a 20-mule team at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair was such a success that when the fair ended it went on tour driven by muleskinner “Borax Bill” Parkinson. After it reached New York and made a trip down Broadway, the mules were sold and the wagons returned to California. Twenty-mule teams made periodic appearances over the years. The last was at the Jan. 1, 1999, Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif.

Watch It Whiz By

(Monday, July 10, 1905) Mad to beat the wind, and vowing he will smash all records ever set in this country for gas going. Walter Scott, the “bonanza king,” started on the Santa Fe from Los Angeles, Cal., yesterday afternoon at 1 o’clock on a whirlwind trip to Chicago, to satisfy a most acutely developed case of speed mania. It is not yet known at just what time the train will pass through Streator, but it is thought it will whirl by here about noon tomorrow.

Scotty, the only and original whirlwind spender, as he is called, is paying the Santa Fe Railroad $5,500 to surpass all speed records between Los Angeles and Chicago and chop down the time for his special train to forty-eight hours.

If the Santa Fe cannot satisfy his longing for fast traveling Scott declares that he will charter a special train from Chicago to New York and beat the eighteen-hour service between those two cities. That will about fill his appetite for land achievements for a time and “Scotty” announces that he then probably will charter the fastest ocean liner afloat in an attempt to cross the Atlantic in record time.

In short, Walter Scott, a Death Valley miner, who recently struck it rich, and has since been doing his best to make things lively in Los Angeles, is out for the breaking of a record that can be broken.

The special will have the right of way over everything. It would have to maintain a speed of forty-eight mile an hour over the mountains and plains around sharp curves and over bridges. Eighty trainmen, or sixteen full crews, will be required to take therein through, and it will be pulled by sixteen of the speediest engines of the road, handled by sixteen of the oldest and most skillful engine drivers of the system. No stops will be made except to change engines and to take on fuel and water.

The record time between Chicago and Los Angeles is fifty-two hours, made by the Lowe special, and the record time between Los Angeles and Chicago is fifty-seven hours and fifty-six minutes, the time of the Peacock special made in 1900.

The schedule calls for the train to arrive in Chicago at 3 o’clock tomorrow afternoon.

Record Smashed

(Tuesday, July 11, 1905) Leaning as far as he could out of the cab of the balance compound Santa Fe engine No. 517, Walter Scott, the California “bonanza king,” passed through this city at 10:19 o’clock this morning on the Santa Fe’s special, only ten minutes behind the forty-five hour schedule.

At 10:18 a.m. the whistle was heard, and the surging crowd simultaneously shouted, “Here she comes!” Another few seconds passed and the train has gone by.

Mr. Scott has an open countenance which could be styled handsome, and is a man about 30 years old. He wore blue overalls and a blue shirt which was wide open at the neck. Around his neck, a red handkerchief was loosely tied and his hair which was long, was streaming in the wind as the train whizzed by the Santa Fe depot.

His face bore a smile of pleasure as he passed and he appeared to be enjoying the trip immensely.

Conductor Thatcher of Chillicothe was in charge of the train which was composed of a baggage car and two coaches. Engineer Charles Losee and Fireman William Schlesher, also of Chillicothe, had charge of the engine.

Although the special, instead of arriving in this city at 10:09 a.m. was ten minutes late, it expected that the ten minutes lost would be made up before the train reached Joliet.

From Chillicothe to Chicago is 130 miles. From Streator to Chicago on the Sante Fe it is 94 miles. The schedule for this distance was made for 141 minutes from this city to Chicago and there is little doubt but that this would be made.

The Scripps-McRae Press Service reported the “coyote” special arrived in Chicago at 11:57 a.m. being three hours and six minutes ahead of the schedule.

A mob of three hundred people fought like demons to get first look at the “Croesus of Death Valley” who is intent on scattering his wealth in true western style.

After thanking the train crew for the care taken of him, the millionaire miner posed for picture with his dog, a cur picked up in the streets of Los Angeles.

He then escaped the crowd by jumping into a Wells Fargo express wagon and was driven rapidly to his hotel.

Editor’s note: Prospector, performer, con man, Walter Scott (1872-1954), more commonly know as Death Valley Scotty, was part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and a desert prospector, but made his living by getting investors to invest in his nonexistent Death Valley gold mine. He became good friends with one of the investors, eccentric Chicago insurance millionaire Albert Johnson (1872-1948), who built a vacation home in Death Valley that is commonly called Scotty's Castle, even though Scott did not own, design or build it. Scott is buried with his dog, Windy, on a hill directly above the castle, which is now a popular tourist attraction. The castle is owned by the National Park Service but is closed until 2020 to recover from flood damage, although the grounds are still open. (Source: findagrave.com)

Video extra: To view a dramatized version about the Coyote Special, visit YouTube.com and search for “Death Valley Days S3E16.” The episode from the vintage television anthology series “Death Valley Days” also begins with footage of a 20-mule team in action.

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