wildrose charcoal kilns   15 comments

row of ten kilns as seen when approaching from west end of Wildrose Canyon (click on all photos for larger views)

After leaving Lone Pine, a photographer friend and I followed 136 south past Owens Lake – a vast dry lake bed lying between the Inyo Mountains to the east, and the Sierras to the west. Stopping to tour the small town of Keeler, we shot a few photos of older buildings, then continued on our way to the junction with 190. From there, we made our way east, stopping numerous times to photograph the landscape, building ruins, and quite a few rocks (one of my favourite subjects). Deciding to knock off early, we spent the night at the small RV park and campground at Panamint Springs. Once again, we were the only campers, but just before dusk, a lone motorcyclist pulled in to set up his tent. It was a cool but tolerable night. Splurging on an RV spot, we spent the evening recharging batteries for cameras and other gear, and used the wifi connection to catch up on email to those back home. In the morning, I filled the tank on the van, then turned us south onto Panamint Valley Road. At the Trona-Wildrose Road junction, we turned northeast and began the slow climb into the Panamint Range where the highest peaks in Death Valley are located. I’ve decided to spare you my collection of rock photos and limit this post to the main highlight of our small foray into the Death Valley region.

front side of kilns as seen from west end

At around 6,800 feet, the Wildrose charcoal kilns are considered to be the best preserved of their kind in the western states. No doubt, their survival probably has a lot to do with their remote location. They are accessible by car as the road is paved most of the way up, but turns to somewhat bumpy gravel a couple of miles before arriving at the parking lot. From that point onwards, it’s recommended that only higher clearance vehicles should attempt the road on up to the Thorndike and Mahogany Flat campgrounds, and the trail head for Telescope Peak (elev. 11,049 ft). We did drive up to Thorndike (7,400 feet) to take a look around at the campsites, but decided that it was too cold and windy on that day, so spent the night down at the Wildrose campground (4,100 feet). Good decision as, even at the Wildrose campground, we watched someone’s improperlyl secured tent get blown up into the air and float away like a hot air balloon while the owners were off hiking somewhere. Not such a fun surprise to return and find that your tent has blown off to who knows where.

Although I’d seen photographs of these kilns, I must admit that, as they came into view, I was entirely blown away by their size, shape and state of preservation. Regardless of how one may feel about their significance as industrial artifacts, they are really quite beautiful in a very organic sense – seeming almost like over-sized bee skeps set within a wash of sage and rabbitbrush. Ten in number, they sit arrayed equidistant in a line between the road and the base of the mountain slope. They are made of local rock which has been mortared together. Remnants of the lime kiln, used to make cement for the mortar, may be found a short distance behind the charcoal kilns.

back view of the kilns with openings near the top

I spent a good hour shooting many photos of the exterior and interior of the kilns from many angles, all the while marvelling over the incredible precision of the workmanship. The interpretive signage in the parking lot states that the kilns were designed by Swiss engineers and built by Chinese labourers. They were constructed in the mid-eighteen-seventies in order to produce charcoal which was then used to fuel the silver-lead bullion smelters operated by the Modoc Consolidated Mining Company, located approximately twenty-five miles west in the Argus range.

After some searching around on the net to find further information on the kilns, I believe that much of what I’ve read must originate with a booklet entitled Wildrose Charcoal Kilns by Robert J. Murphy, former superintendent of Death Valley Monument (Death Valley Natural History Association, 1972). Here’s a little of what I’ve learned:

The kilns are approximately 25 1/2 feet high, and 32 feet in diameter. The walls are about 24 inches thick at the bottom, thinning to 12 inches near the top. There have been two major restorations of the kilns – the first by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s, and the second in the early 1970s, when Navajo masons with expertise in working on ruins, came from Arizona to fully restore the stonework. It took 42 cords of wood to fill each of the ten kilns. After a week of burning and a few more days of cooling, each cord would have produced about 45 to 50 bushels of charcoal – or about 2,000 bushels of charcoal per kiln. The charcoal was then moved by wagon by the Cerro Gordo Freighting Company owned by Remi Nadeau. Just a bit of interesting trivia about Remi Nadeau. He was a French-Canadian, born in Quebec in 1821. After working in the eastern U.S., he traveled west in 1860 in an attempt to cash in on the gold rush. He started up his Cerro Gordo Freighting Company and became one of the principal operators in eastern California, one reference stating that he operated 80 freight teams. I’ve always found it interesting how much people got around the continent in spite of the slowness of travel in those days.

one of the kilns with its arched doorway – note pointed stones near the peak

According to a website that, sadly, no longer seems to exist, the ten kilns averaged 3,000 bushels of charcoal per day. This was transported to the above-mentioned Modoc Consolidated Mining Company smelters owned by George Hearst, father of the newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst. At the smelters, the charcoal was used to fire furnaces to produce silver-lead bullion. The kilns appear to have been active between 1876 and 1879, at which time the mines began to run out and became unprofitable. It barely needs to be stated that it required a massive supply of wood to produce charcoal for the mines. It took a team of about 40 woodcutters to keep the kilns supplied with pinyon pine and juniper, cut and carried or skidded from the surrounding area. Talk about environmental impact. It never ceases to amaze what lengths mankind will go to when there’s a buck to be made.

circular stonework in the ceiling of a kiln

Well, enough about the history. As artifacts, the kilns are beautiful structures. There’s something about them that seems almost monastic. It might be the vaulted ceilings and the acoustics when one is standing inside. It could be the way the golden desert sunlight glows in the arched doorways and the single high opening to the back. It could also have much to do with the secluded location. Somehow, it’s difficult to imagine them jammed full of smouldering pinyon logs. When active, it must have been a busy place, with people loading and unloading wood and charcoal. Now, there is just the sound of wind circulating through the kilns and the occasional echo of a voice or footstep. I must admit to being a somewhat surprised at how little time the visitors who trickled in and out would spend examining the kilns. Most drove up, snapped a few photos of themselves by the front door of a couple of domes closest to the parking lot, jumped back in their vehicles and drove away. While several groups came and went, I wandered slowly in and out of each kiln, examining the workmanship, finding many wonderful stones laid in the mortar, and thoroughly fascinated at how often the air vents along the bottom lined up with a vent on the opposite side of the dome. I have no idea if the pointed stones protruding near the peaks of the domes have any practical purpose, but they add just a touch of whimsy to the overall appearance.

One of the vent holes in the three rows near the bottom of the kiln walls

I should make mention of the Wildrose Peak Trail which departs from the parking area for the kilns. It is 4.2 miles one way to the 9,064 foot summit. We didn’t do the hike as dogs are not allowed on trails within Death Valley Monument. On our return from the kilns to the campground, we stopped at the section of pipe mounted next to a sign describing the Skidoo water pipeline. It reads: The Skidoo Pipeline can be seen either north or south of this location. The pipeline, which ran from Birch Spring in Jail Canyon, to the Skidoo millsite 23 miles away, was completed in 1907 at a cost of $250,000. There is some speculation that the slang phrase 23 skidoo may have had its origin in Death Valley:

Death Valley National Park Service interpreters have sometimes given as an explanation that the early 1900s mining town of Skidoo, California required that a water line be dug from the source of water on Telescope Peak to the town – a distance of 23 miles. Most thought it would be easy, but the immensely hard rock along the course made it very difficult; it was eventually accomplished by a determined engineer. The term “23 Skidoo” was then used as a statement of irony, something like “duck soup”: a reference to something ‘apparently easy,’ but actually very difficult.

Whatever, the view down Wildrose Canyon with the Panamint Range beyond is really pretty stunning.

Skidoo Pipeline through Wildrose Canyon with the Panamint Range beyond.

Written by bev on January 27th, 2010

15 Responses to 'wildrose charcoal kilns'

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  1. I have heard about the charcoal kilns in Wildrose Canyon, and it is fascinating to see such wonderful photos of them.

    A few summers ago I found a few 19th century potash or lime kilns tucked into rockfaces above Dalhousie Lake. The stone work was similar, but the kilns were small, five or six feet across.

    It is sobering to consider how much Pinyon Pine must have been harvested to produce charcoal for the Hearst smelters.


    27 Jan 10 at 8:52 pm

  2. Fascinating post, Bev, as usual. I’d never heard of the wildrose charcoal kilns; they are, indeed, quite interesting. I also like the photo of Keeler Market, “field home of H.S.U. Geology!”


    27 Jan 10 at 9:00 pm

  3. Are the deforested areas still barren? In western Connecticut the low-sulfur iron ore, which had to be smelted with charcoal, long after most iron was made with coal, resulted in the deforestation of most of western Connecticut and Massachusetts long after the eastern parts of the states had begun to grow back through secondary succession.


    27 Jan 10 at 10:46 pm

  4. Cate – Glad you liked the photos. I’ve visited a few lime kilns in eastern Ontario, but certainly nothing like these! Yes, i can’t get over the quantity of wood that was being burned. Crazy.

    John – I particularly liked that photo too. I was driving down the street, went past, and just had to back up to get it. especially because of the HSU Geology part!

    fred – I saw smaller trees, but can’t say I saw much of any size. I’m guessing that they must be quite slow growing in that region due to the meager amount of rainfall. While looking up information for this post, I found an interesting paper – more to do with calculating when the trees were cut down, but also had some info on age of trees, etc.. It would appear that the trees they were burning were well over a hundred years old but don’t strike me as all that large. By the way, the thing I’ve noticed here in southeast Arizona is, that when there is a fire, there’s a lot of erosion on the mountainsides when the summer rains come. I don’t think it makes for the best conditions for reforestation.


    27 Jan 10 at 11:19 pm

  5. Bev, those kilns are awesome, and your information is fascinating. I wasn’t aware that such things existed and am interested in knowing where the lime kilns are in Eastern Ontario… although I imagine they’re much smaller than these!


    28 Jan 10 at 6:43 am

  6. When I lived at Lake Tahoe, I was told that the mountains surrounding the lake were essentially denuded to get timber for mines in the area, especially around Virginia City. It was hard to believe, because the area was heavily forested, but several websites support that claim. One site quotes a Virginia City editor: “The Comstock Lode may truthfully be said to be the tomb of the forests of the Sierras.”


    28 Jan 10 at 1:01 pm

  7. Marni – There are some lime kilns around eastern Ontario — in fact, there’s a fairly large one on an NCC trail in Ottawa. Check out this .pdf file and you should see a photo of the ruins of the kiln on the first pagez:
    Others that I’ve seen are not nearly as large — usually just a stone-lined pit with perhaps a bit of stonework above groundline. There’s one like that on the Lime Kiln Trail at Mill Pond Conservation Area not far from Portland, Ontario. It’s a bit of a walk to get to the kiln and it isn’t well marked — it’s off the main trail about 60 or so feet, so easy to miss. Nice hiked though. Nothing that I have seen in the east is anything like these charcoal kilns. The only thing I can think of that is even remotely similar back in Canada would be the Claybank Brick Plant in Saskatchewan – it has large brick kilns there. It’s never been open when I’ve been through the region, but I may try to get there this coming year.

    Mark – Interesting! Thanks for posting that additional information. I guess that the forest regrowth must be dependent on precipitation, etc.. That paper I linked to in the comment to Fred says that average rainfall in that area of the Panamint range is 10 inches — not really too much. I think it would take awhile for trees to make much progress — that’s certainly the cage down here in southeast Arizona where you don’t see very many large trees. Probably takes them a very long time to achieve much size, except up in the ranges like the Chiricahuas where they get significant snowfall in winter.


    28 Jan 10 at 2:06 pm

  8. I had a hard time believing that the area around Lake Tahoe had suffered much from logging because of the size and cover of the existing tree growth. I have a picture somewhere of my dog standing on a pine stump that had around 200 rings, and the stump was fairly fresh. The total precipitation in the basin is about 30 inches, counting rain and snow, and the snowfall in the surrounding mountains is even greater, so there is plenty of moisture for tree growth there, unlike on the leeward side of the mountains.

    I’m not sure of the condition of the forest these days. There was a beetle blight some time ago that seemed to be hurting some areas, notably areas close to highways.


    28 Jan 10 at 4:33 pm

  9. Mark – I can see how there could be a lot of regrowth in the period following the mining days. There was a stand of Eastern White Pine at the back of my farm and I believe it was 60 years old. It was quite a forest of very good sized trees.
    Regarding bark beetles, there’s a lot of talk about them in parts of Arizona (White Mountains, etc..). The general consensus seems to be that the recent dry years have stressed the trees to the point of being susceptible. Everyone around here seems thrilled with the rains we’ve been getting for the past week. I don’t mind them at all. It’s great to see.


    28 Jan 10 at 8:04 pm

  10. Your photos always make me want to travel more and take good long looks around. Those kilns are really so interesting. Despite their intended purpose, they have grown into awesome artifacts.

    The discussion about logging in the gold country reminds me of some of the research Roger has done on the area. It is absolutely true that much of the Sierra here was completely logged. Hardly a single tree was left standing. Most of what we see is definitely second or third growth. Some of it is impressive, but that only drives home the point in some ways of what could be here, had we not altered the landscape in the interest of gold. It reminds me of what it’s like to walk through a stand of old-growth redwood. Nothing compares with a walk among the ancients.

    robin andrea

    29 Jan 10 at 2:09 pm

  11. robin – I was thinking about Roger’s research into the gold country history, sites, etc.. The alteration of landscape and artifacts of mining are not something I normally tend to consider when I’m in an unfamiliar place, but in California and much of the southwest, I have to keep reminding myself of the presence of the past.
    So true about how second and third growth forests do not really resemble old growth. The biodiversity of an old growth forest can be very different, as seen in the old-growth redwoods. No doubt, it would seem different again, in a place like Death Valley. We can only know when we have some way to compare these forests.


    30 Jan 10 at 12:14 pm

  12. I missed seeing these when my sister and I were in Death Valley in the late 1980s. Your photos make me want to go back to Death Valley.

    They remind me of these:



    30 Jan 10 at 8:26 pm

  13. These are beautiful, and astonishing. They remind me strongly of the Irish monks huts on the Skellig Islands too, which must be at least a thougsand years older than these. I seem to recall there are some very old shepherd’s huts somewhere remote in France too, perhaps in the Pyrenees, which are similar. I like the shot of the vault too.


    31 Jan 10 at 11:54 am

  14. am – If you get a chance to return Death Valley, the trip up to the Wildrose kilns may be a highpoint. It is not really all that far from that terrific campground at Lone Pine, to the campground below Wildrose, so could easily be part of a wonderful journey. The place I will be writing about next, is not all that far again, so it would definitely be part of my circuit. More coming up about that very soon. You are so right about the beehive stone structures at Skellig. They remind me of stone granaries that I have seen in a few countries.

    Lucy – Thanks! I think I may have seen the huts that you’ve mentioned in France. I should really look this up. I found it interesting that the engineers who designed them were supposed to be Swiss.


    31 Jan 10 at 10:16 pm

  15. I love the sense of the place you described as ‘monastic’. Lovely.

    Hope all is well with you and the pups, Bev.

    Spring is hinting at its return here in northwest Ohio.

    The cardinal is in full voice – despite the forecast of freezing rain and snow.

    Cathy Wilson

    20 Feb 10 at 4:25 pm

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