Learning Nevada's Rich Mining History At Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park



Beehives In The Desert: Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park

Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park In Nevada Serves To Protect And Educate Visitors About Nevada's Rich Mining History

The Beautiful Charcoal Ovens [Courtesy/Travel Nevada]

In it’s heyday, Ely Nevada was the capitol of copper mining in the world, with a busy railroad, thriving ranches and the biggest hotel in the country- all six stories. Once the copper began to run out, so did the town, but if you turn off U.S.93 into Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park, you will find six weird objects that look as if some giant bees had built their hives, but they are in fact six abandoned charcoal ovens.

“The ovens are a living link to Nevada’s unique history,” said local historian Ed Spear. “Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park was officially designated in 1994 and continues to both protect the ovens and educate visitors about Nevada and White Pine County’s rich mining history. Visitors can explore these 140-year-old relics, getting an up-close look at the remarkable skill used to create them.”

The rails within the park provide hiking and biking along Willow Creek where the mining explosion began. The overlook trail provides a bird’s-eye view of the ovens and Steptoe Valley. The town site of Ward is also still visible. Sections of the buildings were dismantled and used to create buildings in new boomtowns, but there are some foundations intact. The Ward Cemetery is located just off the road and serves as a reminder of the difficulties of mining life. Many of the grave markers are those of children and families that died within a short time of each other, suggesting disease, but it’s the ovens that visitors come to see, standing 30-feet high and 27-feet in diameter at the base. The beehive shape reflected heat back into the center of the oven reducing heat loss. The walls are 20-inches thick with three rows of vents.

Inside A Charcoal Oven [Courtesy/Travel Nevada]
Charcoal Oven Interior [Courtesy/Travel Nevada]

“In 1872, two brothers traveled from Pioche to the railroad town of Toano in Elko County, looking for lost oxen along Willow Creek,” Spear said. “The brothers stumbled upon silver ore, triggering a mining boom that was characteristic of early Nevada. Virtually overnight, the mountains around Willow Creek were flooded with miners in search of their own rich ore. Seeing the potential for the area, the Martin and White Company of San Francisco purchased several claims and built smelters to process the ore in the new Ward Mining District.”

 The smelters would work well in the area, but were worthless without a hot-burning fuel to keep them running, so to supply the smelter with quality fuel, six charcoal ovens were commissioned along Willow Creek. Blocks made of tertiary volcanic and quartz latite tuff were chipped out of nearby mountains by hand, and two small kilns were built about 100 yards west of the ovens to create the mortar. The ovens were 30 feet high and 27 feet in diameter, with a wall thickness of 20 inches. These six ovens produced charcoal used within the smelters to extract minerals from the ore. Charcoal was used due to its ability to burn at a higher temperature and longer than raw wood.

Their beehive shape - a relatively new design - was more efficient than older designs, creating a better product, Spears said.

Side View Of The Charcoal Ovens [Courtesy/Travel Nevada]
Ward Charcoal Ovens State Park [Courtesy/Travel Nevada]
Charcoal Ovens At Night [Courtesy/Travel Nevada]

“Each oven cooked 35 cords of wood for 12 days to create the perfect batch of charcoal,” he said. “The process involved loading the oven with wood, lighting the wood on fire, and sealing the entryways with large cast-iron doors and mortaring them closed. Three rows of vents were systematically opened and closed to control the amount of oxygen that was introduced to the fire. This controlled burn allowed other components of wood to burn off and leave a carbon charcoal core. The ovens made about 600 bushels of charcoal that was loaded and taken by wagon to the smelter, just a short distance away.”

In only three short years, the charcoal ovens were shut down as a new fuel source since petroleum coke made its way west on railroad cars and the town of Ward officially died in 1888 when the post office closed. However, the ovens did not go unused, they acted as shelters in inclement weather and had a reputation of being a hideout for stagecoach bandits.

Today, the park has day-use facilities and a recently renovated campground with shade structures, fire rings, grills, water, and vault toilets. This new campground is a great basecamp location for recreation. The day use facilities are great way to get off the highway, enjoy a shady picnic spot along the creek, and relax while fishing for creek rainbow and brook trout.

Candice Reed

A graduate of Kelsey-Jenny College in Communications as well as a certified grant writer, Candice has written for The Los Angeles Times & The New York Times. She loves entertaining and all things French.


Make Sure To Stay At:

Ely KOA, where high desert meets the mountains of Great Basin National Park, with meadows, forests, wildflowers, streams and lakes - and the fascinating marble/limestone formations of Lehman Caves.

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