Monday, September 29, 2008

Desert Destination: Frisco, Utah: Ghost Town and Charcoal Ovens

Every Monday we visit a desert destination.
These are charcoal ovens, used in the late 1800s to produce charcoal to run smelters to process the ore found at nearby mines. These particular ovens are found at Frisco, Utah just off Highway 21. 

Okay, if you're trying to find Frisco on a map, you probably won't have much luck, because absolutely no one lives at Frisco anymore. But during its heydey, almost six thousand people lived here. Before I get into that history, let me tell you a little more about these charcoal ovens.

They have an arched entryway, big enough for a person to enter. They were filled up with about 35 cords of wood: pinyon pine, juniper, sagebrush, and whatever else was close by and available. Then fires were set and over the next few days this wood was reduced to about 1,000 bushels of charcoal, which was small and compact. It took approximately 13 days to go through the entire process of loading the oven, burning the wood, and moving the charcoal.

Each of the charcoal ovens has a window high in the wall opposite the door to improve ventilation. I've tried to find information about how this window might be closed, but I've found very little information about how these charcoal ovens operated. (If you know more, please let me know!)

The shape of the charcoal ovens is a beehive, or parabolic, which helped to concentrate the heat into the middle of the oven. Look closely to the right of the door, and you can see little holes in the rocks. These provided additional ventilation and could be plugged or opened as needed.

Desert Boy enters one of the charcoal ovens, giving you a sense of scale. To the right are some little light spots in the wall--those small ventilation holes. The more intact charcoal ovens are quite dark inside, the rocks stained with dark soot.

Five charcoal ovens were originally built in Frisco in 1877 by the Frisco Mining and Smelting Company. This company decided it would be profitable to invest in the area due to the high-producing silver mines in the San Francisco Mountains, particularly the Horn Silver Mine, discovered in 1875. 

The charcoal ovens are about two miles away from the major hub of mining. As more ore was found, a town sprang up. It included a post office, and in 1880 the Utah Southern Railroad extended into town from Milford, Utah, 15 miles to the east. It became much more profitable to ship the ore out. It also became much easier to get water in; very little water is found close to Frisco.

The town grew and gained a reputation for being the wildest mining town in the San Francisco district. It had over 20 saloons, gambling dens, and brothels lining the rocky streets, and a population of nearly 6,000. Murders became so frequent that city officials decided to hire a lawman from Pioche, Nevada and give him free rein. When he rode into town, he reportedly said he wasn't going to build a jail or make arrests. Criminals had two options: get out of town or get shot. Some didn't believe him, and the first night he apparently shot six outlaws. After that Frisco became a much calmer place.

This mill was built near the mines. Just ten years after the profitable mines were discovered, a momentous event occurred. It was the morning of February 12, 1885, and the day shift was preparing to enter the mine. Several tremors had been felt, and they were told to wait. The night shift came to the surface, and a few minutes later a massive cave-in collapsed most of the mine, including the most profitable areas. Amazingly, no one was killed.

Over $60 million worth of zinc, lead, silver, copper, and gold had been hauled away from Frisco in those 10 years. After the cave-in, mining eventually resumed, but never at the same scale, and slowly the town of Frisco faded away. By 1900 only about 500 people remained, and by the 1920's the town had been abandoned.

Few buildings remain, but this old stone wall hint at the town that once existed. 

A small cemetery is located between the charcoal ovens and the mines. I found it to be one of the most depressing mining cemeteries I have ever visited. Despite the reports of the outlaws and murders in Frisco, I'd estimate that nearly three-quarters of those buried there were infants or children. The cemetery is definitely a reminder that although we might look back at ghost towns with a hint of nostalgia, the life was hard and lacking most comforts that we take for granted today.

Frisco's days may not be totally over. In 2002 a mining company bought the rights for the mines and has begun reworking them. Although the mining areas are closed off, the charcoal ovens and cemetery are still open for visitors.


The Incredible Woody said...

I have soooo got to go west!!

Sarah said...

Love the B&W shots. Sepia work as well?


Enlightened Fox said...

Thank you for posting such an interesting history of the Frisco mines. My Grandmother grew up there her family hauled water from Milford up to the mines since there was no water.

I have visited the site several times as a kid and as an adult. You have great photos of it.

I wonder if adult bodies were buried in Milford instead of Frisco cemetery.

I also wonder if the Utah "beehive" symbol comes from the beehive ovens shape as much as from actual beehives.

StevenD said...

I was just there yesterday. I also felt the cemetery was quite depressing. In fact the whole area was depressing while fascinating at the same time. I didn't trust my car on the rough roads up to the kilns so we just viewed them from a distance. It looked like the kilns have been fenced off. I am now trying to find photos taken during Frisco's heyday if such photos were even taken and exist.

Jillian Seymour said...

The reason Utah is called the beehive state because the original name of the state was Deseret. A Latter-day Saint religious word that means beehive. The pioneers called the territory that because of the new communities dedication to industry as bees are very industrious to create a beehive.

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