|Monday morning Mom, Larry & I decided to explore the Ward Charcoal Ovens, located about 18 miles southeast of Ely via U.S. 93. Operational from 1875 through 1879, the ovens were used during the silver boom years of the Ward Mines. Silver ore was discovered in 1872 when freighters were looking for oxen that were grazing in the Willow Creek Basin area near Ely. The Ward Mining District, located two miles north of the park, was then developed. The beehive shaped ovens replaced the old pit system of producing charcoal because the ovens were more efficient way to reduce piñon pine and juniper to charcoal. The charcoal ovens were used to heat up the silver ore.
The ovens prepared charcoal from locally-harvested timber for use in the smelters at Ward, using 30 to 60 bushels of charcoal per ton of ore, for 16,000 bushels a day. Charcoal burns twice as hot as wood and, because it is lighter than wood, was much more economical to transport to the smelters. Nevada's mining economy succeeded in part due to this inexpensive source of fuel.
Today, six large ovens remain in excellent repair, 30 feet high, 27 feet in diameter, with walls 2 feet thick at the base. We learned that the parabolic, beehive shape reflected heat back into the center of the oven reducing heat loss. The walls are 20-inches thick with three rows of vents. The ovens were made from rock quarried directly southwest of the ovens. Each oven held approximately 35 cords of wood. One cord is 4 feet high, by 4 feet wide, by 8 feet long and produced about 1,750 bushels of charcoal.
Wood was cut into 5-foot to 6-foot lengths and stacked inside the ovens vertically using the lower door. The first floor of the oven was filled leaving an open space in the center to serve as a chimney. The wood was then loaded up a ramp and through the upper door, which looks like a window, in the same fashion. The loaded oven was ignited and the metal door was cemented shut. The vents were used to adjust the air drafts to suffocate the fire just enough to produce charcoal. Burners gauged the char coaling process by the color of the smoke. When the char coaling was completed, in about 10 days, all air vents were closed and the fire died out. The charcoal was then cooled using water through the chimney. The oven was emptied loading the charcoal into bushel-size burlap sacks.
The ovens were built in 1876 by itinerant Italian masons who specialized in the ovens, who were known as Carbonari. The Carbonari were not always depicted as heroic workers however. In the 1860's, silver production expanded into central Nevada, first near Austin, then to Eureka—the "Pittsburgh of Nevada"—in the 1870's with the new Stetefeldt furnace. Rich Comstock ores required no smelting, but central Nevada ores needed processing, and smelters required fuel in the form of piñon pine and juniper cut from local hillsides. Even when Rocky Mountain coal became available at Virginia City, it cost as much as fuel wood. Thus, for over thirty years charcoal production had a severe impact on the region's scarce forest resources. The mills used several million bushels of charcoal annually. By 1871, the hills surrounding Eureka were totally denuded of trees for a radius of ten miles, by 1874, the radius was twenty miles, and by 1878, it was fifty miles. The same held for other mining centers around the state. Early observers blamed the Carbonari for the resulting devastation.
When the ovens were finally phased out due to depleted ore and a shortage of available timber they had another use, sheltering stockmen and prospectors during foul weather. They also had a reputation as a hideout for stagecoach bandits. Interesting! We've now been out to visit the ovens 5 times & I still enjoy this short but interesting trip.
A side note...There are two day-use areas that provide a great spot for a day hike and picnic. These areas have covered tables, restrooms, grills and wonderful views. Willow Creek Campground has two large pull-through spaces, which are great for RVs, and many other distinct spaces for every type of camper. A camping limit of 14 days in a 30-day period is enforced.
On our way back down the dirt road we made a brief but interesting stop at the Willow Creek Trading Post. Oh my, what a bunch of 'stuff' they have here! Mom & I enjoyed browsing a bit, both inside & outside. They have quite a collection of 'stuff'. Well, that's it for today. Thanks for stopping by & have a wonderful day!