Once in a while I come upon an old ghost story or monster story that I’d never seen before. It happened again on a recent father-son weekend trip to Death Valley, our favorite family destination.
Throughout Death Valley are remote cabins left over from the mining days. Many of them have been partially restored to various levels of livability, and are meticulously maintained by volunteers who frequent them. They’re often stocked with spare tools and supplies, and at least one I’ve visited even has running water piped in from a spring. Nearly all of them have shelves of knick knacks — bits and pieces of mining history collected from the surroundings — and always a lot of books.
We were at one such cabin in the Tucki Mine area. Visitors are always welcome in these cabins, and we signed the guest book. I flipped through some of the books on one shelf and found a small one I hadn’t seen before, a little storybook full of ghostly tales and legends of Death Valley. Here is the story I read:
In the late 1800s, borax mining was the principal business in Death Valley. Many Chinese laborers were employed in the borax mills. Lumps of borax called “cottonball” were scraped from the valley floor, crushed, and boiled in open vats made from adobe. This purified and crystallized the valuable chemical so it could be transported and marketed.
In 1885, a 7 foot, 7 inch tall Chinaman named Tong Yu was working at the Harmony Borax Works when he accidentally fell–or was pushed–into one of the large open vats of boiling borax. Workers fought to pull him out. Tong’s entire body was horribly burned, and his flesh was deeply saturated with the caustic borax.
He was brought into the living quarters, and a doctor was sent for. By the time the doctor arrived the next morning, Tong Yu was nowhere to be found. During the night he must have wandered away alone, perhaps in an agonized madness.
Today, visitors to the park often report a tall, thin, distant figure on the salt pan under the moonlight. Sometimes the wind plays tricks on the ears, sounding almost like a mournful cry. In 1974 a party of park rangers chased the figure on foot but could not get close. The Borax Man seemed to melt right back into the plain he came from.
The Borax Man was new to me, and I thought I’d heard them all. I took a pair of camera phone pictures of the pages. Unfortunately, fool that I am, I did not take a picture of the cover or title. I searched Google Books and the rest of the web to no avail. If anyone recognizes this story or knows the name or author of the book, please post it in the comments. I would love to get a copy. My favorite part is the awesome little illustration of what appears to be an alien from Close Encounters; I guess he’s pretty lost.
Apparently I am obligated to do the “skeptical” thing and give my thoughts on the likelihood of the story. I have been to some of the borax works and have seen the ruins of these vats. Those mentioned in the book, the Harmony Borax Works, are by far the best preserved and are today a major attraction at the park. I know that the refining process described is more or less accurate, but I had not heard before that the mixture necessarily had to be boiled. Sometimes these works had to be shut down during the summer months, since in order for the crystals to form, the solution had to cool to a certain point. In the summer it stayed too hot throughout the night, and no useful crystals could be produced.
I imagine it’s likely that guys did fall into these vats from time to time, but without knowing the water temperature it’s hard to assess whether they’d have been burned or not. Certainly with a full-body burn the way Tong Yu suffered, dehydration would be a major problem and I don’t guess he would have lived very long if he did wander away. He probably ended up like this unidentified gentleman pictured here.
Chinese workers did indeed work at these mills. The work was hot and horrible, the smell was awful, and the pay was poor. Chinese were unable to get better jobs because of racial discrimination, so employers were always happy to snatch them up for the worst work that nobody else would do. I’ve not found any sort of records for Chinese laborers — I don’t know how many tens or hundreds of thousands of them worked throughout California in the 19th century — so I will not presume to suggest whether Tong Yu was an actual guy or not.
I’d say most of the story is perfectly plausible. I did spend a few fruitless minutes trying to track down the one modern detail given, the 1974 chase given by rangers. No results. Next time I’m at the park, I’ll ask some of the rangers if they’d heard the story. If I learn anything interesting, I’ll post it here.