Today we visited the Ward Charcoal ovens, now a state park located about 10 miles outside of Ely. There is a nominal fee to visit the park, used for it's upkeep. In addition to the ovens, there is a short hiking path, but it was entirely too cold to hike today. 39 degrees with a light wind, chilly!
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 beehive shaped ovens replaced the old pit system of producing charcoal because the ovens were more efficient way to reduce Pinyon Pine and Juniper to charcoal. The charcoal ovens were used to heat up the silver ore.
The charcoal 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. 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 1860s, silver production expanded into central Nevada, first near Austin, then to Eureka—the "Pittsburgh of Nevada"—in the 1870s 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 fuelwood. 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.
In downtown Ely, Chris Kreider has painted a mural entitled 'Ward Charcoal Ovens'. At the painting's center are the Carbonari, Italian and Swiss immigrants, all experts in charcoal production, who cut the wood, built the kilns, carefully fired them to produce charcoal, and then shipped the finished product to the smelters. In 1880, Carbonari accounted for nearly twelve percent of the population in Eureka County, the center of charcoal production.
When the ovens were finally phased out due to depleted ore they had another use, sheltering stockmen and prospectors during foul weather. They also had a reputation as a hideout for stagecoach bandits. Interesting! We also learned that the Ward ovens are the best-preserved of their kind in Nevada. So there you have it. We enjoyed our visit and think you would as well. One of the interesting places here in central Nevada. It's cool learning a bit about our states history. Guess that's why we always enjoy our time here each year.
That and family of course! We had a wonderful Thanksgiving and ate entirely too much! Can't help it, it's one of our favorite meals each year. Larry says a turkey leg and pumpkin pie are both about as good as it gets, LOL! The only thing that would have made it better is if sister Elaine and her hubby Don could have joined us too. We missed them, but my parents were glad to have 3 of the 4 of us girls there. Sister Joyce brought her friend Jack along. 87 years young and a nice guy. This is his second Thanksgiving here in Ely. He resides in St George, Utah and his children are spread out all over the USA. So, he happily joins us.
Larry and I hope you had a blessed Thanksgiving with your family and friends as well. And if you are traveling this long weekend, be safe!