Visit Date: October 10, 2015
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.