Saturday, February 23, 2008

Nevada's Stone Beehives


Scattered across Nevada are a handful of 19th century charcoal ovens that resemble nothing less than giant stone beehives. These stone or brick domes were once used to convert wood, often pinon pine, into charcoal that could be used in mining smelters.

Best known of the state’s charcoal kilns are the Ward Charcoal Ovens, 12 miles south of Ely. Here, you can find six 30-foot-high domes built in 1876 to produce charcoal for the smelters at the nearby mining camp of Ward.

Valuable ore was discovered in the foothills of Ward Mountain in 1872. Within three years, Ward had grown into the largest town in eastern Nevada, with a population of more than 1,000.

By 1877, Ward had boomed to 2,000 people and a city hall was under construction. The flush times, however, were short lived. Mining began to decline and within three years the town had only 250 residents.

Mining continued on and off for the next few decades—in fact, the area was reopened most recently in the 1980s and is currently being mined.

The charcoal ovens were built a few miles from the town. Using native rock, the builders constructed these unique cones that are about 30-feet high and 27-feet around at the base. When filled, each could contain some 35 cords of pinion pine stacked in layers.

The dome-shape allowed for the wood to be kindled easily and the heat was controlled by opening and closing small vents at the base of the ovens. The massive ovens were abandoned during the 1880s.

Over the next century, the intriguing stone buildings were used for a variety of purposes, including as stables and emergency lodging for wandering sheepherders and cowboys.

Local legend says that one oven even served as a bridal suite. According to the story, a gambler decided the oven was a perfect place for a wedding night. He had the walls whitewashed, hung curtains and installed appropriate sleeping accommodations.

The gambler and his fiance, however, apparently quarreled before the marriage -- perhaps over having to spend a night in a drafty old stone charcoal oven -- and cancelled the wedding.

Eventually, the ovens were acquired by the Nevada Division of State Parks, which oversees the site. Today, you can find the ovens, a handful of undeveloped campsites and beautiful surroundings.
While the Ward kilns are among the most accessible of the state's charcoal ovens to reach, there are a handful of others scattered around the state.

Another set of relatively accessible ovens can be found 14 miles north of Pioche. There, at a place called Bristol Well, are the remains of three stone kilns, originally built in 1880.

The Bristol Well kilns were constructed of local shale and sandstone, which gives them a more rough appearance than those at Ward.

Silver and lead ore was discovered near Bristol Well in 1872. The camp developed slowly; by 1880, a five-stamp mill and smelter had been constructed, along with the three ovens. It wasn't until 1890 that Bristol Well had a post office and could boast 400 residents.

By the mid-1890s, however, the town was in decline, and had almost disappeared completely by 1905. Today, only the kilns remain.

Full or partial remains of kilns that can be found tucked away in remote corners of the state, include: a stone oven west of Eureka, overlooking the Diamond Valley; a couple of ovens near Panaca Summit, off State Route 319; and several that are near the mining town of Tybo, east of Tonopah.

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