Oakland, the city that borax built

I was taking a bus ride and pondering what to write about for this post, when I looked toward Lake Merritt and found my topic written on the curb: “borax”.

This absurd-looking tag was surely a deeply historical reference to one of Oakland’s most memorable characters, Francis Marion Smith, who became the 19th-century version of a billionaire by exploiting the colossal borax deposits of the Nevada-California desert — and marketing based on the 20-mule teams that once hauled the ore to remote railheads. At least I hope it was, and not a new Oakland gang marking territory.

California is nicknamed the Golden State for the rare mineral that caused the Gold Rush — and the wildflowers too, of course — but Oakland sidestepped the Gold Rush and made its first wealth from the farms, orchards and oyster beds that fed San Francisco. (Its main geology-based industry was crushed rock.) A generation later, Smith became Oakland’s most influential citizen thanks to this boron-bearing mineral from the Nevada desert.

Boron is a cosmically rare element because stars can’t manufacture it, only high-energy cosmic rays that happen to strike oxygen or carbon nuclei in interstellar space. We are lucky that boron is rejected by minerals in the mantle and core and finds a home in the deep crust, mostly in the mineral tourmaline.

Schorl, or black tourmaline, is a boron silicate with a flexible formula that accommodates a wide mix of cations. Clear varieties are prized as gemstones.

In western North America, we’re luckier that crumbling continents and the volcanic activity that follows allow boron to rise to the surface, where it finds even more compatible mates and forms water-loving borate minerals in places like the dry lake beds of the Great Basin. The rise and fall of crustal blocks has decanted and concentrated all sorts of interesting minerals, from common salt and gypsum to lithium compounds and borates.

In the 1870s, borax (Na2B4O5(OH)4·8H2O) was an expensive compound well known to chemists, apothecaries and other specialists, but not at all a consumer good. Then Smith, a Wisconsin native drawn to the wild West, discovered a large deposit of ulexite (NaCaB5O6(OH)6∙5H2O) at Teel’s Marsh, in Nevada east of Mono Lake.

Fibrous ulexite or “TV rock” is available in any rock shop.

He’d seen enough mines by then to know what to do with it: refine it into borax, corner the traditional market for borax in chemistry and medicine, then sell the hell out of borax as the “foundation of a clean healthful home”: a disinfectant, insecticide, home remedy, and cleaning agent for fine clothing, now readily available to the person of ordinary means.

Smith succeeded in legendary fashion: his Nevada claim became the world’s largest borax mine, the first of many he operated, and a new industry was born from the abundance. That gave him the money to buy out his competitors as the opportunity arose and acquire their holdings in the desert. He grew rich; more than that, due to his marketing efforts — for instance, opening a borax shop in New York on Wall Street — he became known as “Borax Smith” at age 26 and, not long after, as “the Borax King.”

Smith moved from the Nevada desert to Oakland in 1881, where he proceeded to put his wealth to work, starting with a large estate and mansion in the Ivy Hill/Bella Vista neighborhood. As he gained experience building and running railroads to serve his desert mines, he consolidated the electric commuter rail lines of the East Bay under The Realty Syndicate, a land development partnership with Frank Havens. The Syndicate owned the majority of the high hills, developed many residential tracts around the Key lines, built the Claremont Resort and Key Route Inn, and planted the ill-fated eucalyptus plantations the length of the Oakland Hills, perhaps the city’s greatest ecocrime.

A hundred years ago, there was no more influential person in Oakland’s urban fabric than “Borax” Smith. The driven, meteoric entrepreneur was memorialized as the titular character Elam Harnish in Burning Daylight, Jack London’s most commercially successful novel: a man whose humanity blossomed not early with wealth, but later through love for a woman.

If only Oakland had borax deposits, or any boron-bearing minerals at all. But it doesn’t. I suppose if it had, Smith would have moved heaven and earth to turn that stuff into money. The only example I can show you is this tourmaline-studded ornamental rock from Pleasant Valley Court.

You might find some at a jeweler’s.

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