Memories of Old Borate
by William H. Smitheram

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Map of Calico Mining District showing Borate in relation to nearby sites.
William H. Smitheram collection


The Cornish, as an emigrating and mining people, have left their mark around the world, especially in America. Their genius in mining was a skill inherited from generations of forebears. It is said that, "Wherever there is a hole in the ground, you will find a Cornishman at the bottom of it." And so it was true at the Borate borax mines at the turn of the century. Rich colemanite deposits in the Calico Mountains, twelve miles from Daggett, California, were developed and worked from 1890 through 1907.

William Smitheram
b. July 11, 1865, Cornwall, England,
d. Sept. 1, 1916, Riverside, CA.
Wedding portrait, 1892, Redlands, CA.
William H. Smitheram collection

Florence Smitheram, né Meadows
b. Nov. 27, 1875, Toronto, Ontario, Canada,
d. July 31, 1971, Riverside, CA.
Wedding portrait, 1892, Redlands, CA.
William H. Smitheram collection


My grandparents, William and Florence Smitheram, arrived at Borate in 1899 with their children, four-year-old Myrtle and Frank (my father), age two. William assumed the job as Mines Superintendent and Florence was a wife and mother living under primitive conditions. She also maintained a notebook and at random intervals recorded events and described personalities. Most of the entries were written in the first decade of the century and others appear as recollections in later years. I have transcribed her Borate memories into this paper.

Her flair for detailed events presents a highly interesting and amusing story as well as a true insight into the life of a miner's wife in old Borate. Perhaps it can be said, "She held the day's wonder and joy in her heart, to recall in the delight of memories."


Will and I, with our children, Frank and Myrtle, arrived in Borate in 1899. We thought we had come to the end of the world upon seeing the borax mining camp, so barren and isolated in a mountain canyon, and faced with primitive living conditions.

Fred Corkhill, from the Isle of Man, was superintendent at the time and Will was to be his replacement. Corkhill was being sent with a group to search for new borax deposits in Chile, South America.

Miner's cabins dug into hillside at Borate.
William H. Smitheram collection


We lived for several weeks in a tent cabin opposite Corkhill's house located at the top of Borate Canyon. My cook stove was out doors and supplies were shipped in from Daggett some twelve miles away. With Corkhill's help and direction, Will soon assumed his responsibilities. When the Corkhills moved away, we moved into the superintendent's redwood house. For a mining camp it was roomy and adequate, the roof was solid, and my cook stove was inside.

The Smitheram House at the top of Borate Canyon, 1903.
William H. Smitheram collection


Corkhill had been faced with labor troubles when several miners demanded a schedule of no Sunday work. In order to maintain adequate ore production, the mines were on two twelve hour shifts, seven days a week. Corkhill had continued this schedule and Will soon determined this was necessary as well, in order to keep the roaster mill at Marion in production. Those miners who could not abide by this decision soon left.

Ore chute and ore storage bunker, Borate, 1903.
William H. Smitheram collection


The 'Roaster' plant at Marion, five miles from Daggett.
William H. Smitheram collection


We lived in Borate almost seven years. The only times I was away for a few weeks were in 1900 when our daughter, Gertrude, was born and in 1905 when our son, George, was born. Both times I went by train to Redlands where I had an aunt and uncle and also a trusted doctor. Everyone in camp was very helpful to me. Some of the families were: Julianne and James Nevill, Pearl and Ed Mott, and Osborne, Haggerty, Jennings, Willoughby, Mulcahy, McShane and Falconer. John and Ella Allen had a daughter, Mary, and she and our children were friends, even into adulthood.

The Smitheram children in Borate, 1903.
Gertrude Smitheram (age 3) at left,
Frank Smitheram (age 6) at right
Playmate Mary Allen, seated in wagon.
The Recreation Hall is in the background.
William H. Smitheram collection


About seventy-five people, including single miners, lived and worked at Borate. The number varied each year. We visited often and our house, the largest in the camp, seemed to be a general meeting place. I well remember one of the shift bosses, John Harrigan, a jolly Irishman with a multitude of stories about his travels. He often brought small gifts to our house: licorice for the children and oranges and berries from a ranch at Fishponds on the Mojave River. Sometimes I gave him tea and rice pudding and I suspected he looked forward to this.

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