A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Off the Grid
Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park, Nevada
Tucked into a basin in eastern Nevada’s Egan Mountain Range is a curious row of six beehive-shaped stone constructions each measuring 30 feet tall and 27 feet wide at the base. These structures, which date to the 1870s, were once the backbone of the region’s booming silver industry. Used to produce the immense amount of charcoal needed to smelt silver ore extracted from nearby mines, such kilns consumed much of Nevada’s native pinyon pine and juniper stands. “Where there were mines, there were these charcoal ovens,” says Nevada State Parks Park Interpreter Dawn Andone. “Most have been lost to history, having either fallen apart or been vandalized. But at Ward Charcoal Ovens, you can see exactly how the charcoal industry functioned.” The ovens were crafted by Italian stonemasons in 1876 and replaced temporary charcoal pits that had been used to produce smelting fuel for the nearby Ward Mining District. For three years, workers in the employ of San Francisco’s Martin & White Company hauled wood to the ovens and oversaw a 10- to 12-day burning process that produced an estimated 1,750 bushels of charcoal per oven. Once the silver boom ended, the sturdy ovens provided temporary shelter for ranchers and travelers and, as local lore has it, were used as hideouts by stagecoach bandits.
One of the least visited parks in the Nevada State Parks system, Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park is located off U.S. 93 some 18 miles south of the town of Ely. The park is open year-round and has a small campground located across a seasonal creek from the ovens. Visitors are welcome to walk into the structures to get a look at the stonemasons’ immaculate work. A trail runs by the bluff where you can see quarries that furnished the stones used to make the ovens, the foundations of miners’ homes, and two cemeteries where workers were buried.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE
Ely serves as a gateway to the region’s many natural wonders, including Great Basin National Park, which is just an hour’s drive east. In downtown Ely, White Pine Public Museum has an exhibit dedicated to the history of silver mining in the area, as well as one focused on the 1982 discovery of the skeletons of two giant short-faced bears, extinct Ice Age creatures that stood 11 feet tall and were once North America’s largest carnivores. If you have time to stop for the night, Andone suggests staying in the town’s Hotel Nevada, one of the oldest inns in the state. She also recommends dropping by the Prospector Hotel, which features a busy gambling hall as well as Margarita’s Restaurant, where you can find some of the best Mexican food in Nevada.
Snacking in the Colosseum, Japanese tomb statue, Attila the Hun’s motives, 300,000-year-old fur coats, and Egyptian crocodiles in the afterlife
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