The Panaca Summit Kilns are among the largest conical style kilns in the region, according to a brochure published by the Bureau of Land Management.
These beehive-shaped kilns were built in the mid-1870s to produce charcoal for the silver mills of Pioche and Bullionville in Lincoln County, Nev., where numerous smelters operated from the 1870s through the 1890s. Kiln Wash, located between the two mines, provided a direct downhill route to Condor Canyon six miles away, the brochure states. At Condor Canyon, the freight teams loaded with charcoal could either turn south toward Bullionville or continue on to Pioche.
The freighters, often three or four wagons hitched together, were pulled by teams of mules or oxen. They required straight, well-engineered roads, which were easily constructed along the gently sloping course of Kiln Wash.
Smelters preferred pinyon charcoal because it burned hotter than juniper, and it held together in large, durable chunks. Stone to build the kilns was quarried from an outcrop of rhyolitic tuff near the site, the BLM brochure states.
As you enter the open door at the base of the kiln you will notice that a lot of wood can be stored inside each kiln. In fact, each one can hold about 56 cords of wood and together, they could produce 3,400 bushels of high quality charcoal during a single firing.
Workers called “charcoal burners” usually Swiss and Italian immigrants, filled them with five foot lengths of wood cut from surrounding mountains. Once the wood was set afire, the kiln was partially sealed to control the rate of burning, according to a May 30,2010 article by A.D. Hopkins of the Las Vegas Review Journal.
“It took as much as 30 days to make charcoal, and 50 cords of wood produced only 30 bushels. That was enough to smelt only one ton of the very heavy Pioche ore. Charcoal workers were poorly paid, but these kilns continued in use until the 1890s,” he states. “Such kilns were once seen all over the West, but few remain, and the two at Panaca Summit are the among the best preserved.”
As I left the Panaca Kilns, I marveled at the technology of that time period, but also of the labor that must have gone into keeping the kilns going on a regular basis.