The Historic Canyon Creek Charcoal Kilns
What have charcoal kilns and the production of charcoal to do with Forest Service history? An honest answer has to benot very much. Not very much if you are looking for a direct historical linkage between mining history as it unfolded in Canyon Creek and the early forest reserves or the later national forests. However, the mining history in Canyon Creek, and the role played by charcoal production in that history, provide a background or context for understanding the kinds of use early forest reserve officers and later Forest Service officers were expected to bring under control and management in the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries. Canyon Creek represents just one of many possible examples of free access or free use of forest resources taken as a right by industrial, agricultural, and individual interests throughout the West during the nineteenth century.
Other prominent local examples of nineteenth century industrial use of public resources are numerous in both the timber and livestock industries. However, the mining industry in Montana was the first, most important, and arguably the largest user of natural resources in southwestern Montana. Timber and water were critical to the development of any ore body. Mining companies exploited these resources freely without regard to conservation or compensation to anyone but owners or stockholders.
Southwestern Montana can be characterized as a region of basin and range topography. A number of important rivers including the Beaverhead, Big Hole, Red Rock, and Ruby occupy broad, alluvial valleys flanked by rugged mountain ranges. These ranges include the Ruby, Beaverhead, Tendoy, Highland, and Pioneer mountains. Elevations in these mountains often reach over 10,000 feet. The valleys are broad areas of open, rolling grassland covered by native fescue, blue bunch wheatgrass, and sagebrush. Above the foothill zone timbered mountain slopes support stands of lodgepole pine, Douglas-fir, and Engelmann spruce at higher elevations.
Canyon Creek is a major easterly flowing tributary of the Big Hole River. It enters the Big Hole River near Melrose, Montana, at a point about halfway between Dillon and Butte. Canyon Creek in the area of the charcoal kilns is a narrow, flat-flood canyon with steep walls to the north and south. The kilns lie at about 6,500 feet in elevation and are surrounded by a mosaic of timber and sagebrush-grassland along the canyon floor. On adjacent forested slopes lodgepole pine is the dominant species, with juniper, curley-leaf mahogany, and Douglas-fir also present.
Mining in southwestern Montana was the earliest impetus for a host of other development. The placer gold discoveries at Bannack, Virginia City, Nevada City, and numerous other locations in Alder Gulch brought Montana Territory its first large influx of immigrants from "the States" and surrounding territories. Mining provided the base from which other development grew. Agriculture in the Gallatin Valley, the Beaverhead Valley, the Deer Lodge Valley, and a few other areas of lesser importance developed to serve the needs of miners. The first early cattle drives from Oregon into Montana Territory were designed to take advantage of a ready market in southwestern Montana. It was no accident that one of Montana's earliest and largest livestock enterprises (Poindexter and Orr) was established in Beaverhead County adjacent to the rich placer mines and their throngs of busy miners. When Nelson Story drove the first herd of Texas cattle into the Gallatin Valley in 1866, he too had his eyes firmly fixed on the growing population centered around Bannack and Virginia City.
Large-scale placer mining began in Montana with the discovery of free gold in the gravels of Grasshopper Creek during the summer of 1862. Bannack, the first territorial capital, grew up at the new diggings virtually overnight. Although immensely wealthy, the placer deposits at Bannack were short lived. By the summer of 1863 Bannack was already being eclipsed by discoveries of rich deposits of placer gold made in Alder Gulch some fifty-five miles east. Virginia City, Montana's second territorial capital, grew to be the most important of several mining camps in the Gulch. Working from Bannack and Virginia City, prospectors spread throughout the surrounding mountains to locate other strikes. Some enjoyed success in new locations, but none ever duplicated the strikes on Grasshopper Creek and Alder Gulch. The era of placer mining in southwestern Montana lasted at a much reduced level for many years (indeed it continues today). But by the late 1860s and early 1870s the best placer deposits were largely depleted and emphasis shifted to lode mining.
Trapper Creek and the adjacent Canyon Creek were prospected in the early 1870s. The discovery of large silver bodes in Trapper Creek is the quintessential story of accidental strikes on the mining frontier.
William Spurr and James A. Bryant located a promising silver lode in 1872. They called their Trapper Creek discovery the Forest Queen. Neither partner worked the claim, and the following year the lode was open for relocation. Bryant, P.J. Grotevant, and a number of partners organized a fur trapping expedition to the headwaters of Trapper Creek. While there Bryant intended to relocate the silver lode found the previous year. That being done the partners went about their business of trapping. Grotevant was out on Trapper Mountain searching for lost horses when he accidentally came upon an outcrop of the Trapper Lode. He reportedly sat down to rest on the outcrop and idly kicked a rock at his feet. As the rock turned down-side up Grotevant saw almost pure silver in the stone. He quickly returned to camp and convinced his partners that their time would be better spent staking claims than trapping pine martin and beaver. After staking their claims the party traveled to Bannack to record their find. Word of the new silver strike leaked out and in a matter of a week dozens of men were in Trapper Creek staking claims.
Among the newcomers was Noah Armstrong. Armstrong located the Cleve, Avon, Alta, and Atlantis lodes. These mines quickly became the leading producers in the Bryant (later the Hecla) Mining District. Working from this base of highly successful producers, Armstrong soon bought other properties until he owned the bulk of the mines in Trapper Creek. One of his acquisitions was the Cleopatra, which together with the Atlantis became the two most profitable mines in the district.
Log cabins and tents sprang up immediately, and Trapper City was born in 1873. In addition to the miners' dwellings, there were several saloons and a "hurdy gurdy." Looking to the future Armstrong chose a spot on Trapper Creek about ten miles below Trapper City to build a smelter. The first cabins around Armstrong's smelter appeared in 1873 and the town of Glendale was established. The smelter had two seventy-ton blast furnaces. Apparently not content to wait for the smelter to become operational, Armstrong and other mine owners shipped ten tons of high-grade silver ore to Swansea, Wales, for refining that first year. 
Trapper City flourished only briefly. It soon became apparent that the properties located about a mile up the gulch on Lion Mountain (such as the Atlantis) were potentially more important than those near Trapper City. The Trapper Mine shut down just as the Atlantis was coming into production. A new settlement called Lion City grew at the foot of Lion Mountain. Trapper City's last inhabitant gave up and moved to Lion City in 1878. 
Lion City boasted two general stores, three saloons, two hotels, boarding houses, a school, and a post office by 1878. Inhabitants included skilled miners, laborers, merchants, teamsters, gamblers, and prostitutes. Lion City served the needs of people at the mine mouth. Glendale served a very different function, and it too was growing. Early lode miners were faced with a number of serious problems. After securing sufficient capital for development, they had to get heavy mining equipment and milling machinery to the lode. Once equipment was in place and working tons of ore had to be hauled to distant places for processing. Hauling ore any great distance was very expensive. The mining records are replete with examples of ore being hauled from southwestern Montana to Corrine, Utah, and shipped by rail to the west coast. There the ore was placed in ships for the trip to Swansea, Wales, and eventual smelting. This option worked for only very high-grade ore which could pay the cost of transport. A preferable solution was to be establish smelters as close to the ore body as possible. This is exactly what Noah Armstrong did. Strengthening his mining, milling, and smelting interests Armstrong formed the Hecla Consolidated Mining Company in 1877. He continued to build up the Glendale smelter, and with the smelter, the town.
Armstrong's original smelter burned down in 1879 at a reported loss of $100,000. Construction of a new smelter began immediately. Prompt reconstruction was imperative. The Glendale smelter was not only processing ore from the Lion Mountain mines, but also from mines in the adjoining Districts of Highland and Vipond. 
A glimpse of the nonindustrial side of Glendale in the late 1870s is possible from a contemporary source. Alma Coffin arrived in Glendale in 1879. Her father was the newly employed school teacher. She described the settlement as having one main street ". . . winding up the gulch," and small frame houses and log cabins scattered on the hillside. Miss Coffin also mentioned the smelter, roaster, company office, assay office, warehouse, blacksmith shop, iron house, powder house, coal sheds, stables, hospital, a Masonic Lodge, an Oddfellows Lodge, racetrack, roller skating rink, opera house, and brewery. 
Affairs seemed to be going well for Noah Armstrong, and the Hecla District, as the 1880s dawned. Ore from the mines was smelting at $1000 per ton. Base bullion was being shipped by wagon and train from Glendale to Omaha, Nebraska, where it averaged $100,000 in value over a period of several months in 1880. Despite its apparent vigor, Armstrong's company was $77,785 in debt as of January 1881. Armstrong decided to sell his interests in the Hecla Consolidated Mining Company to E.C. Atkins of Indianapolis, who owned the Atkins Saw Works. Atkins employed Henry Knippenberg as manager of the saw works. Knippenberg accepted the position of general manager of Hecla Consolidated. He arrived in Glendale with his family in April of 1881. 
Knippenberg set about an immediate reorganization of Hecla's operations. That Knippenberg was an able general manager, and his reorganization successful, is seen from the company's balance sheet. By December of 1881 Knippenberg had erased the debt owed by Armstrong and showed a year-end profit of $237,730. 
The mid-1880s saw Glendale's smelter and community growing. The smelters three fifty-ton blast furnaces were supported by two crushers, and a large roaster. The vigor of the Hecla District's production and community growth were assured by the arrival of the Utah and Northern Railroad. The tracks reached Melrose, Montana, in the spring of 1881. The railroad was finally completed to Butte in December of the same year.  It is clear that Knippenberg's successful reorganization of the Hecla Consolidated Mining Company was aided immeasurably by completion of the railroad. The Hecla District was linked with Butte on the north and Salt Lake City on the southtwo major centers of east-west transcontinental rail traffic.
The 1890s began well for the Hecla Mining District. Glendale was important enough to appear on a map of Montana's leading towns and cities in 1892.  The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 was a boon to the silver interests in Montana. It required the United States government to purchase twice as much silver as it had previously. It also added to the amount of silver money in circulation. However, the act threatened to undermine the nation's gold reserve. President Grover Cleveland was convinced that the act helped precipitate the Panic of 1893. The president called Congress into special session, and in 1893 the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed.
This was a serious blow to the silver producers in the Hecla District. These external forces were only the beginning of Hecla's problems. Production from the mines declined rapidly after 1893. The Cleopatra Mine played out in 1895. The Atlantis followed soon afteralthough it continued small scale production until 1903. The end was in sight for Hecla Consolidated. Ore reserves were depleted, and national trends greatly reduced the value of silver. Yet the company managed to show a profit for stockholders. It paid annual dividends of 6 percent between 1870 and 1900.  The Glendale smelter was closed down and dismantled in 1900. Low grade ore, and slag, were shipped to Omaha for smelting; mining on a large scale was over by 1903.
In the history and development of lode mining in Montana, the Hecla District ranks as one of the most important and productive silver and lead districts in the state. Geach called the Hecla District the ". . . treasure house of Beaverhead County, having produced ore valued at nearly $20,000,000." Commentators of the period pointed to the Hecla Mining District as equal in importance to any in Montana's famous "silver triangle:" Butte to Phillipsburg to Helena. 
The Use of Charcoal in Smelting
Early blast furnaces represented a significant undertaking for mining companies, but one which some chose to accept for a variety of reasonsmostly economic. These early blast furnaces needed to be small enough to transport, especially prior to rail access. They needed a source of power, usually a steam boiler, to operate the machinery, and in the case of hot blast furnaces, to heat the air forced into the furnace. The furnaces needed fire brick to line the fire box.  The only other special need was available water, which in the case of Glendale was brought by ditch and flume from Trapper Creek.
The ores smelted at Glendale were not refractory. They did require blast furnace treatment because ore with a silica content greater than 4 percent needed a blast furnace. The ore was not sulfurous so roasting in a reverberatory furnace was unneeded, or little needed. To "charge" a blast furnace a highly controlled mixture of ore, flux (for example lime, dolomite, or iron ore) and a solid fuel were placed in the furnace. The commonest smelter fuels were coke, charcoal, or a combination of the two.  Prior to the arrival of railroads, coke imported from the northeastern United States was too expensive for southwestern Montana smelters. With access to eastern markets provided by the Utah and Northern Railroad there was a change from reliance on charcoal as blast furnace fuel to a mixture of coke and charcoal (the shift in fuel preferences happened at numerous localities in the mining West). This shift occurred at Glendale after 1881. Coke was shipped to Melrose from Pennsylvania. In 1895, for example, the Hecla Company imported 1000 tons of coke. This coke cost $16.65 per ton delivered at Melrose, and an additional $2.35 per ton to haul the 10 miles by wagon from Melrose to Glendale. The smelter consumed 10 tons of coke per day.  So the stockpiled 1000 tons would last only about 3 months. At this rate of consumption it is clear why the Hecla Company continued to absorb the additional expense of charcoal production for a portion of the blast furnace fuel.
The actual production of charcoal involves locating a source of cordwood, felling the trees, limbing, bucking into cordwood lengths (4 feet), transporting the wood to the burning site, and burningor "coaling" the wood. Cordwood was reduced to carbon by two methods. It could be burned in earth-covered mounds, called "pits" by the charcoal burners. It could also be burned in brick or stone kilns designed for the purpose.
The amount of labor in kiln burning was less than that required for pit burning. The kiln burning process was easier to control and the condition of the charcoal could be better determined throughout the process. Kiln productivity was greater than pits. Pits produced from 30 to 35 bushels of charcoal per cord. Kilns would yield 45 to 50 bushels per cord. The yield was 15 to 20 percent greater, and the cost of operation 30 percent less. Finally, kiln burned charcoal was cleaner as it was not mixed with dirt and sand from an earth covertherefore it burned cleaner and hotter.  The only obvious drawback to kiln burning was a lack of mobility. When nearby stands of timber were cut pit burners simply moved operations to another area. As nearby stands of timber were used fallers had to move increasingly greater distances from stationary kilns, thereby greatly increasing the cost of transporting wood to the kilns.
Doubtless, the Hecla Company's need for charcoal was filled by the pit method in the early years. That was the pattern throughout most of the mining West. Pits required less capital, less skill to construct, and probably somewhat less skill to operate than kilns. As a mining district developed the pit method was sometimes supplanted; sometimes it existed side-by-side with charcoal kilns. This second situation applied to the Hecla District. In 1895 the Hecla Company produced charcoal in thirty-eight company owned kilns (not all were in Canyon Creek) and also purchased pit-burned charcoal from independent burners. 
Charcoal kilns came is several shapes and many sizes. The form and construction depended upon the builder's preferences, skill and knowledge, and the dictates of terrain. They could be rectangular, circular, or conical. Fuel quality did not differ from one to another. The principal drawback to round and rectangular kilns, which were declining in popularity by the mid-1850s, was their structural instability. They were more prone to crack in the joints, and therefore, required more repair. All kilns expanded and contracted with the fluctuations in temperature. Metal bands or wire ropes were placed around them for support. These bands did not prevent cracking in the round and rectangular kilns, and the cracks could not be permanently sealed. The constant cracking and recracking introduced unwanted air into the kilns and made the burning process difficult to manage. 
The 23 charcoal kilns on Canyon Creek are 20 feet high and 25 feet in diameter. They represent the conical type, made usually of brick, and most common in the charcoal industry after 1850. These kilns hold between 35 and 45 cords of wood.
The cost of kiln construction was greatly influenced by local factors. Most important of these were the availability and cost of material and labor. It cost $500 to build a conical kiln of 35 to 50 cord capacity in New York. A similar kiln in Michigan cost $600. Murbarger quotes the cost of a brick or stone kiln in Nevada, similar in size to those on Canyon Creek, at between $500 and $1000 each. It was more cost-effective to build smaller kilns (between 160 and 180 cubic meters in capacity). The cost of more structures was offset by a higher quality charcoal. 
The operation of a charcoal kiln can be divided into three parts: charging the kiln, burning the wood to charcoal, and discharging (or "drawing") the kiln.
The act of "charging" a kiln referred to filling it with cordwood. The wood was not simply pitched in, but stacked very precisely to allow complete, even burning. The cordwood was four feet long. The diameter was not important, although a uniform diameter was helpful for even burning. The kiln was filled from the main charging door on the front of the structure until it was no longer possible to reach the top of the wood stack. The upper portion of the stack was laid in from a smaller charging door: usually at the upper rear of the kiln. Charging a conical kiln thirty feet in diameter required the labor of four men and two horses for one twelve-hour day. 
The "burning" process reduced wood fiber to charcoal by driving off the volatile gases and moisture in an oxygen poor environment to produce an almost pure form of carbon. The entire art and science of producing a good grade of charcoal centered on the manipulation of the kiln vents, and the ability to understand conditions inside the kiln from external signs. Once the kilns were fired the charcoal burners never left the site until the burning was completed. They watched the smoke coming from the three rows of vent holes around the bottom of the kiln. Thick white smoke came from the topmost row of vents, usually for three to four days. This signaled water being driven out of the wood as steam. In about four days yellowish smoke began to appear. Blue smoke followed next. Blue smoke indicated the kiln was very hot and the burning process was almost complete. After the first twelve hours the top vents were closed and the second row of vents opened. In another twelve hours the second row of vents smoked blue. They were then closed. The bottom row of vents were opened and the fire was taken down to the very bottom of the kiln. When the burners judged the bottom of the kiln to be thoroughly burned the bottom row of vents were closed and sealed. 
The burning time for a thirty-five-cord kiln was between six and eight days. When the kiln was completely fired all vents were closed by inserting a brick and mortaring it tight. The kiln was allowed to stand for two-and-one-half to three days. Eight to ten barrels of water were then thrown into the kiln from the top charging door. The charcoal could usually be drawn the next day. Two men working a twelve-hour day could "draw" or "discharge" a conical kiln about the size of those on Canyon Creek. 
Wood Fiber and Charcoal Production at Canyon Creek
A locally available source of good wood was critical to the success and growth of a mining district. Timber was consumed to provide domestic fuel and building materials, both in the form of rough lumber and round logs. It was a source of industrial and commercial fuel to fire steam boilers. The miners were voracious users of timber for mine studs, lagging, and all the other supports needed to keep a mine from collapse. The need for a good smelting fuel further encouraged intensive timber harvest. Coke was unavailable, too expensive to import, and often remained too expensive to use exclusively in the blast furnaces. So mining companies turned to local fuel for their smelting works. As White noted ". . . without adequate and readily accessible timber even the simplest and least capacious furnace was fated to economic failure." 
Charcoal burners were not fussy about which species of wood they used; whatever was available worked. In the eastern United States both hard and soft woods were burned. In timber-poor areas such as Nevada virtually anything was burned. Pinyon pine, juniper, mountain mahogany, even sagebrush found their way to the kilns.  The Hecla District was favored with large stands of lodgepole pine, some fir, and a few lesser species. This timber was cut in Trapper Creek, Canyon Creek and the large plateau north of Canyon Creek known as Vipond Park.
A brief review of the rate of charcoal consumption will focus the discussion on the rate of timber removal in the Canyon Creek area. The smelters in Eureka, Nevada, processed an ore similar to the makeup of that in the Hecla Mining District. Smelting one ton of silver-lead ore in 1880 required 25 to 35 bushels of charcoal. In that year all the smelters at Eureka consumed 1.25 million bushels. At this rate of consumption 42,857 cords of piñon pine were needed to produce the charcoal.
Depending upon site productivity, between 8 and 10 cords of wood could be harvested from 1 acre. That is, it required somewhere between 3,571 acres and 5,357 acres of piñon-juniper woodland to fuel the Eureka smelters for 1 year. The equivalent of 8 square miles fell to the woodcutters axe in a single year. 
In the same year, 1880, the 8 smelters at Leadville, Colorado, were using between 76,791 bushels of charcoal for the smallest to 1,094,870 bushels for the largest. These smelters were fuelled by Colorado's pine forests which doubtless produced more wood fiber per acre than Nevada's piñon-juniper woodlands. Still, the timber needed to support only Leadville's portion of the Colorado mining industry must have been staggering. Emmons noted that in 1880 these smelters used between 3,600 cords of wood for the largest to 400 cords of wood annually for the smallest smelter operationjust to fire their boilers! 
In attempting to calculate the impact of charcoal production on the timberlands of the East Pioneer Mountains, a number of questions arise. Some assumptions must also be made. Lee Harry (Beaverhead National Forest silviculturist) is personally familiar with the Canyon Creek and Vipond Park areas. He provided the following information on wood fiber yield. These calculations apply to a pure lodgepole stand, even though a small amount of Douglas-fir is present in the area. Lodgepole in Canyon Creek produces about 7,000 board feet per acre. Two cords of fuelwood can be produced per thousand board feet. Therefore, about fourteen cords per acre can be cut in these lodgepole stands.
This number seemed rather low considering the apparent density of the stands in the area, especially since the most productive sites in central Nevada's piñon-juniper forests produce only two cords less. Harry approached the problem through a different set of calculations. There are approximately 200 lodgepole per acre in Canyon Creek. Assuming an 8-inch diameter breast high (DBH), and an overall usable height of 60 feet for mature lodgepole, each tree yields .07 cords or 14 cords per acre. Both calculations estimate 14 cords of fuelwood per acre. That estimate is therefore used for stands present on the site historically. Harry and I have personally observed cross-cut sawn stumps in lodgepole stands adjacent to the Canyon Creek kilns. It is assumed that they represent a historic harvest of the area for cordwood. These stumps are consistent with an 8-inch DBH, and the distance between the observed stumps is comparable to the distance between current living stems.
Determining the acres harvested for charcoal production was made a great deal easier by the location of "annual reports" from the Hecla Consolidated Mining Company's officers to their stockholders. These annual financial reports, authored by Knippenberg and other major company officials, were a comprehensive listing of earnings and expenses for the year. They also included narratives concerning ore reserves, capital improvements, and similar topics of interest to owners. Annual reports for every year except those between 1894 and 1896 are held in the collections of the Beaverhead County Historical Museum. Among the expenses itemized are the number of bushels of charcoal used by the company in the Glendale smelter annually, and the cost for that charcoal. Estimating the number of acres harvested annually by the Hecla Company for charcoal requires dividing the annual reported consumption of charcoal by 45 bushels per cord to determine the number of cords of wood required to produce the indicated number of bushels. The number of cords can then be divided by 14 to arrive at the number of acres harvested. For example, in 1881 the Hecla Company consumed 461,177 bushels of charcoal in the blast furnaces at Glendale. If one could expect to get 45 bushels of charcoal  per cord of wood, then it would have required 10,248 cords to produce 461,177 bushels of charcoal. At a rate of 14 cords per acre, 732 acres of lodgepole pine were harvested to produce the 461,177 bushels of charcoal used in 1881.
This figure (732 acres) and the others displayed in the following chart [see p. 133] represent a minimum number of harvested acres each year. They do not account for domestic and industrial fuelwood, building materials, or mine supports. Not all of the wood fiber used came exclusively from Canyon Creek and Vipond Park. Other charcoal kilns were located in Trapper Creek. The "Acres Harvested" represent an approximation of the Hecla Company's wood fiber consumption for a single industrial product which illustrates the magnitude of unrestricted usage on the public domain. Based on the rate of charcoal consumption in the company's "annual reports" in 16 years, the equivalent of 18.2 sections of timber were cut for charcoal alone.
I have attempted to indicate the immensity of natural resource consumption by early mining entrepreneurs through consideration of a single industrial need of the Hecla Consolidated Mining Company. If the almost ten years of mining prior to the Knippenberg era are included, and the myriad other uses for wood fiber are considered, it is likely that the indicated rate of timber harvest would double at the least. Hecla was by no means the largest of hundreds of mining enterprises operating in Montana between 1864 and 1900. Most were equally rapacious in their consumption of natural resources.
1. Oren Sassman, "Metal Mining in Historic Beaverhead," (Unpublished Master's Thesis, University of Montana, 1941), 238; Thor N. Karlstrom, Geology and Ore Deposits of the Hecla Mining District, Beaverhead County, Montana (Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, Memoir No. 25, 1948), 4.
4. "Not in Precious Metals Alone, A Manuscript History of Montana, 1976", Montana Historical Society, 156; Roberta Carkeek Cheney, Names on the Face of Montana (Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing, 1983), 119.
22. Charles D. Zeier, "Historical Charcoal Production Near Eureka, Nevada: An Archeological Perspective," Historical Archeology 21:1(1987): 84; Otis E. Young, Western Mining (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979), 113.