In the southwestern part of Death Valley National Park is a point of interest often overlooked by visitors— the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns. The middle of the desert might seem like an odd place for a row of beehive-shaped stone structures, but since these are the best-preserved kilns of their type in the western states, it’s worth a long drive down a dusty road to take a look. They are in remarkably great shape for being over 130 years old!
Built in 1877 by the Modock Consolidated Mining Company, the kilns’ purpose was to produce fuel for two smelters located near the company’s lead and silver mines about 25 miles away. Locally-felled pinyon and juniper trees produced the charcoal. Each kiln held 42 cords of logs, and after burning for a week, would produce 2,000 bushels of charcoal. The charcoal was transported to the smelters by mule train.
Why charcoal? When charcoal is produced from wood, it retains its basic shape and texture but is converted to 96% pure carbon. In the 19th century and earlier, charcoal generally was used as furnace fuel because it burned more slowly than wood. It also created a much greater heat that was needed for the refining of ores such as silver and lead.
Today, the kilns still strongly smell of smoke, just as if they had been burning recently. Each identical structure is about 30 feet wide, so it’s easy to walk inside and take a look around. The walls rise 25 feet overhead, and are blackened as you’d expect. Interpretive signs at the Wildrose site explain that Modock Mining built these kilns using Native American, Chinese, and Mexican labor. It seems logical that a fairly large labor force of wood-cutters, charcoal-burners, and haulers would be needed, but there’s no sign now of any kind of settlement, so perhaps it was just a tent city. Permanent structures wouldn’t have been needed anyway because these kilns were only used for about three years— probably because the mining company found a more profitable way to ship their raw ore elsewhere for smelting, or they found fuel sources closer to their operation.
Records show that the Modock lead and silver mines were worked intermittently until about 1900, but were not hugely successful, grossing only about $3,000,000 over 30 years. Although huge profits weren’t realized, the history left behind by the kilns is interesting and shows the tenacity of early miners. After all, hauling charcoal from this spot 25 miles across the desert to a smelter could not have been an easy task!
For more information, visit the Death Valley National Park website here.
In addition to writing about her travels, Denise Seith is also a treasure hunter and loves a good latté. She and her husband own an online gold prospecting and metal detecting equipment store found at GoldRushTradingPost.com