Cottonwood Charcoal Kilns, Cal - U.S. 395

Visit Date: October 10, 2015

Cottonwood Charcoal Kilns Monument. Dry Owens Lake Bed in the distance.

In June 1873, Colonel Sherman Stevens built a sawmill and flume on Cottonwood Creek, high in the Seirras directly west of this spot. The flume connected with the Los Angeles Bullion Road. The lumber from the flume was used for timbering in the mine and buildings, and the wood was turned into charcoal in these kilns, then hauled to Steven’s Wharf, east of here on Owens Lake. There it was put on the steamer the “Bessie Brady,” or the “Mollie Stevens.” Hauled directly across the lake, and from there wagons took it up the “Yellow Grade” to Cerro Gordo Mine, high in the Inyo Mountains above Keeler. M.W. Belshaw’s furnaces had used all available wood around the Cerro Gordo and this charcoal was necessary to continued production.

The bullion which was then taken out by the reverse of this route was hauled to Los Angeles on Remi Nadeau’s 14, 16, 18 animal freight wagons and played a major part in the building of that little pueblo into the city of today.
— California Historical Landmark #537

Thirteen miles south of Lone Pine/seven miles north of Cartago, an unremarkable dirt road heads east off U.S. 395 to the remains of two charcoal kilns and thence to the shoreline of the dry Owens Lake. The beehive-shaped kilns were built of clay bricks, and were then covered in plaster as protection against the elements. But why are they here?

Across the lake and up in the Inyo Mountains was the rich Cerro Gordo Silver Mine, which required a lot of timber and charcoal to operate. After exhausting the local supply of trees, the mine managers needed to find another source. Enter one Colonel Sherman Stevens. He built a sawmill up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, on Cottonwood Creek, because there was plenty of timber for the taking. The sawmill cut the timber into lumber that was needed for buildings at the Cerro Gordo. He also sent wood down a flume he'd had constructed, to the two kilns near the lake.

At the kilns, the wood was loaded inside via the small door on front. Once full, the door was closed and the wood was set ablaze. Vents controlled the speed of the burn and after about ten days, the wood became the much needed charcoal that the Cerro Gordo smelters hungered for. The charcoal burned much longer and hotter than wood. 

The charcoal and timber was loaded onto either the "Bessie Brady," or the "Mollie Stevens," and then steamed across Owens Lake to the shipping port at Keeler. From there it was hauled up to the Cerro Gordo in either horse or mule drawn wagons. What a journey, from Sierra Nevada tree to Cerro Gordo charcoal, and thence to silver and lead bullion.

The monument marker in the photo above is located close to U.S. 395. The charcoal kilns are located about a mile farther down the graded dirt road. The road was in good condition when I visited, but I'm not sure how accessible it might be after periods of heavy rain. Use your judgement when you visit.

The plaster which was used to coat both the inside and outside of the kilns is still visible inside. It looks like the bottom half in each kiln may have been burned away from the charcoal creation process.

Being only a few minutes off 395, the Cottonwood Charcoal Kilns are definitely worth a short detour to visit. Unprotected to the elements as they are, they won't be with us forever. Take a look while you still can.

The kilns at an earlier date.