©Bert Gildart: If you have seen charcoal kilns before, quite likely it was while visiting Death Valley National Park. They look like huge beehives, and they were once used in the park for converting wood to charcoal. Though the charcoal then had to be transported from high in the Panamint Mountains to Death Valley proper, the benefits of using charcoal were immense.
Charcoal produces high temperatures required for extracting borax from rock. As well it it burns hotter than wood because it is almost pure carbon. It is also much lighter and easier to transport, making it an efficient and economical method of smelting ore. Because of their mystical beauty, Death Valley features them prominently in many of the their publications.
Though kilns do exist in other parts of the country, such as Colorado and Nevada, most have not withstood the ravages of time. But in Montana, perhaps because the kilns are remote, a group of them still stand, and they remain in very good shape. To me, they exceed the beauty of those in Death Valley.
Located high in the East Pioneer Mountains near Melrose, Montana, we reached the Canyon Creek Charcoal Kilns following an old dirt road that twisted and bumped for about15 miles taking us first to the old mining town of Glendale. Operated by the Hecla Minding Company, the town existed to extract silver in the still-standing smelter, and during its heyday buzzed with activity. In addition to the miners’ dwellings, there were several saloons featuring “hurdy gurdy” dancers.
Only a few decaying structures remain of the once bustling settlement of Glendale; though charcoal kilns are showing wear, the Forest Service is attempting to restore luster and structure.
For operation, the smelter depended on charcoal produced by the kilns, located yet another five miles up the road. In the old days, charcoal was hauled from the kilns down the road to Glendale.
The kilns are located on Forest Service lands, and when we reached them we began our exploration simply gazing around at all the natural beauty, and the “hives” that blended but in a surrealistic sort of way. Nearby ran a small creek known as Canyon Creek, and once it provided water needed in the process of brick building. Other brick and kiln components included a ready source of clay and sand, and last but not least, an abundance of timber, which came in the form of lodge pole pine.
A trail lead from the parking lot and the Forest Service had posted interpretive signs, explaining that the 25 kilns were 20 feet high and measured 25 feet in diameter. They were used between 1884 and 1900, and during that period contributed to the extraction of more than $20,000,000 worth of silver, making it one of the state’s most productive.
Historically, the kilns are reminiscent of one of the state’s most consumptive periods of time. To fire these kilns, reports suggest that loggers working for the Hecla Company cut over 18 section of timber for charcoal use alone. But those were different times, and today, the kilns remind us of one of state’s most important early day activities; a time when rough shod miners roamed the hills and hurdy gurdy girls danced in nearby saloons. To preserve history, the Forest Service has been attempting to stabilize the kilns and appear to be succeeding. The kilns are equally as appealing as those in Death Valley, California, and certainly much closer, at least for those in Montana.