History in Focus: Kilns in the desert
The Browns Park area is renowned for its unique and violent history that took place in the isolated beauty and solitude of the high desert.
Amid this setting sit four fragile, but still intact, charcoal kilns near Douglas Mountain. These kilns are a remnant reminder of a fleeting moment when extractive industrial development was a possibility for this area.
South of Greystone just off Moffat County Road 10 on CR 84, the four cone-shaped kilns somewhat resemble the monastic cells of a medieval monastery. Surrounded by silent junipers and sage brush, the kilns somehow project a lonely and otherworldly feel.
In 1871 the great 40th Parallel Survey led by geologist Clarence King moved through this area, but it seems they did not observe the valuable copper deposits. Perhaps it’s because King’s crew was hit by a fall blizzard and were forced to retreat to Fort Bridger.
According to the Museum of Northwest Colorado, Griff Edwards, a sheep rancher out of Rock Springs discovered the copper deposits in the 1880s. A monetary bonanza was in the offing.
However, the profitability of the remote mine was complicated by the lack of a nearby rail line. Ore had to be hauled by slow and cumbersome wagon loads over rough terrain to Rock Springs, Wyoming, over 90 miles away.
In 1898, the Bromide Mining and Milling Company purchased the holdings and expanded operations. A bunkhouse, a 15-ton smelter and four charcoal kilns were constructed. The kilns were used to create charcoal from nearby wood supplies.
In this process, the kilns were filled with wood and allowed to slowly smolder with little or no air flow, thus creating charcoal. The charcoal was then used to heat the smelter to a high temperature and separate the copper from the rock.
Eventually, the railroad arrived in Craig in 1913, and six years later the Moffat County Courier encouragingly stated, “Railroads will not be long in coming to such virgin deposits of copper, now that the district is proven…” (Jan. 9, 1919). Unfortunately for all involved, the rail line was never extended westward past Craig.
After World War I ended in 1918, the economy slumped and the price of copper plummeted. It was too much to withstand and large-scale mining of the copper ceased, and the kilns were left behind. In 2000, the Museum of Northwest Colorado successfully had the kilns listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The kilns conjure up an interesting “what if” about how different the northwest corner of Moffat County would look and feel today if the Moffat Road had reached this area. Instead of secluded and rugged beauty, perhaps there’d be leftover industrial waste. Instead of quiet open spaces, larger communities might dot the area. Instead, western Moffat County was left alone to simply exist.
A century later, our area’s off-the-beaten-path stature is gaining a more stylish and chic vibe. The industrial “progress” that previously skipped over Browns Park may now come in the form of a horde of urbanites … leaving behind a possible modern wasteland of managed campsites and neatly mapped and fully advertised hiking trails.
James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School. He can be reached at email@example.com. Sources for this article were Museum of Northwest Colorado’s interpretive Charcoal Kilns historic site, and Bartlett, Richard, “Great Surveys of the American West.”
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