Remi Nadeau

French-Candian whose 20-mule teams made him Southern California's leading freighter between 1869 and 1882, accounting for a quarter of Los Angeles' exports.

One of Remi Nadeau's 100 18-mule teams hauling silver and freight between Los Angeles and mining towns such as Cerro Gordo, 1870s.

1821-1887. Remi Nadeau, one of the city's most colorful characters, was born in Quebec Province in 1821. He migrated to New Hampshire , where he was married in 1844, then worked in Chicago , Minnesota , and Salt Lake City before moving to Los Angeles in 1861. Here he borrowed money to buy mules and wagons to set up a freighting company. His first major runs were the 700-mile trek to Salt Lake City , which took 35 days each way. This route began to decline in 1868 as the cross-country railroad moved in.

Nadeau next turned to hauling silver-lead bullion from mines in the northern Mojave desert, particularly the Cerro Gordo mine near what is now Keeler on the eastern shore of Owens Lake , several hundred miles northeast of Los Angeles over brutal and mostly uninhabited terrain. Other mines were further north in the Owens Valley , at Lone Pine, Independence , and Swansea . The silver ingots were taken to San Pedro where they were shipped by steamer to San Francisco for refining. Remi Nadeau invented the 20-mule team to carry the heavy ingots.

With its then-population of 5,000, the Cerro Gordo trade was the heart of the Los Angeles economy in the1870s. It was a two-way trade, with mule teams returning to the mining towns with barley and other provisions. This valuable commerce was hotly contested. In 1871, when Nadeau's three-year contract expired, the mine owners demanded a sharp reduction in freight rates. Remi Nadeau refused, and for the next several years the trade was diverted from Los Angeles , first to San Buenaventura (now Ventura ) and then to Bakersfield . Both towns, however, failed to keep up with the output of the mines and by 1873 there was a backlog of 30,000 bars of bullion.

Los Angeles businessmen won a negotiation to regain the silver trade, but it depended on the Southern Pacific Railroad. At a crucial juncture the SP announced that it was raising its freight rates, which would destroy the silver-hauling plan. Judge Robert M. Widney (see entry) called an emergency meeting in his courtroom where the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce was founded in hopes of having enough clout to get the SP to back down.

In the meantime Nadeau's freight company had turned to hauling borax, used in laundry detergents, from mining camps in Columbus , Nevada . This is the origin of the still surviving 20-Mule Team Borax brand still sold in stores. The newly formed Chamber of Commerce and the silver mine owners met with Nadeau and asked him to come back to the Cerro Gordo . He agreed on condition that the mine owners put up $150,000 to build new stations along the mountain and desert route. They agreed and they formed the Cerro Gordo Freighting Company. The stations were built, at such romantic locations as Coyote Holes, Red Rock Canyon , Forks-of-the-Road, Cow Holes, and Barrel Springs. The company served a number of other Mojave and Owens Valley towns as well. Routinely two teams traveled together, as the mountain roads were treacherous and deserts hostile with alkali dust and sometimes bandits.

One tale has it that in 1875 Nevada Senator William Stewart won one of the Owens Lake silver mines in a card game and was warned that the losers planned to steal his current shipment of silver. To foil them he had the shipment cast into two giant ingots weighing 500 pounds each. The thieves showed up and labored for hours before abandoning the project. Senator Stewart then hired Remi Nadeau to move the ingots to Los Angeles . On the road the wagons were intercepted by the famed Mexican-American bandit Tiburcio Vasquez, who had escaped from San Quentin and had a camp in the San Gabriel mountain from which he raided wagon trains and travelers. Vasquez took one of the ingots but left the other. As the story goes, Remi Nadeau was supposed to have been a friend of Vasquez. The bandit was captured shortly after this robbery. While Vasquez was in jail in San Jose awaiting execution, Remi Nadeau visited him, saying, "I saved your life once mi amigo, and we had an agreement that you would never rob my freighters, why did you do this?" Vasquez is said to have replied, "A card dealer friend had tipped me off to the silver and I also had an obligation to him, that is why I only took one ingot from you."

As the silver mines were played out near the end of the 1870s, Nadeau opened a freight service in Tombstone and Wickenburg , Arizona , but hauling by mule team was near its end as a viable business. The Cerro Gordo Freighting Company was dissolved in 1882. At its height the company's mule teams drove through Los Angeles with 200 tons of silver lead every month and returned loaded with goods for the mining towns. Almost every business in town depended on this trade in one way or another. Nadeau owned most of the block between Fourth and Fifth Streets in downtown Los Angeles and what is now Broadway and Hill Street . Where today those blocks are office buildings in process of being converted to condos, in Remi Nadeau's time they were barns, corrals, stables, and blacksmith and repair shops.