Friday, October 2, 2009

Charcoal Kilns on Panaca Summit and Mill in Condor Canyon

We just returned from a trip to Nevada. If you’ve read the Spider Latham mystery series, you’re acquainted with my husband’s home town, Panaca. The Lincoln County High School was turning 100 on September 27 and we went down for the celebration.

We took our 4-wheelers with us and planned on doing some riding before the birthday party. I had never seen the charcoal kilns up on the summit, and Derrill wanted to take me through Connor’s Canyon—which we found out wasn’t Connor’s Canyon at all. He’d been calling it that all his life, but the name is actually Condor Canyon.

Well, we did both, and what splendid rides they were.

The charcoal kilns were built in the mid-1870’s. They were situated where they were because of two reasons: a nearby outcrop of rhyolitic tuff and a source of wood, for there is a lot of scrub cedar and pine on the Panaca Summit.

Skilled stone masons took rocks from the outcroppings, dressed them, and joined them with mud and lime mortar to form the beehive-shaped ovens. I was particularly interested in the keystone arch that formed the door.

Swiss and Italian woodcutters who knew the charcoal making process brought these skills from Europe. They cut five-foot lengths of wood and stacked them in two vertical tiers (totaling 50 cords) in the ovens. Then they were lit, the door was closed, the vent at the top was plugged, and air flow was regulated through holes around the base of the kiln.

It took 30 days to complete the combustion of the stack. The resultant charcoal was allowed to cool, and on a calm day, the kiln was opened. If it wasn’t done correctly, the charcoal could catch fire and burn up, destroying all the work of chopping, loading and burning.

Each cord of wood would produce about 30 bushels of charcoal which was enough to smelt one ton of silver ore.

The kilns are in pretty good repair. Inside they smell strongly of smoke, even after all these years.

The next day we went to Condor Canyon.

I had been swimming in the spring above Panaca lots of times, but I never knew that half a mile farther up the road was this wonderful canyon. In earlier days, a railroad ran through it. It’s gone now, but you can drive on the railroad bed as far as the first bridge that someone burned—farther if you’re on an off-road vehicle.

We found a wonderful, shady cave to have lunch in, for though it was late September, it was pretty hot.

We also found the site of an old mill. I don’t know what kind of ore they were processing here, but they had a ramp built for the oar wagons to come up to dump their loads, and there were remnants of what looked like boiler flues lying around. There was another, tumbled-down charcoal kiln located nearby, too.

When we got back to town, I went on line at the only place I could find internet access and found a wonderful picture of the mill that used to be in Condor Canyon.

This is the mill as it was in 1870.

I’ll blog about the birthday celebration next and probably do some philosophizing, but I couldn’t wait to share this bit of history with you.

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Janet said...

Loved this post!!!! Owen and I enjoy that area of the country, he being a Moab boy, we snoop around every chance we get. Saw those kilns last time we were thru there - such a process for silver! We were down to So. UT last October and seeing your post makes my heart yearn to pack the car and be heading south! I guess I'm part migratory bird!!! Thanks.

Monique said...

Great post. Love finding things like that when out and about.