With their conical shape and tumbling walls, the abandoned charcoal kilns of Canyon Creek have a slightly spooky air today, but the area would have been no less eerie during the kilns’ heyday in the late 1800s. During the charcoal-making process the kilns billowed clouds of smoke–first white, then yellow, then blue–for days, and the brickwork radiated heat.
The charcoal kilns at Canyon Creek were built in the mid-1880s to provide fuel for the silver smelter in nearby Glendale–now also a picturesque ghost town. In the 1880s and ’90s, Glendale was one of Montana’s most important silver and lead mining areas, producing something in the neighborhood of 20 million dollars worth of ore, and the charcoal kilns were an essential piece of the production. In the beginning, raw ore had to be shipped to Swansea, Wales (via Utah) in order to be refined in a smelter. The construction of a smelter in Glendale reduced costs considerably, but fuel was still a problem. Coke, one of the best forms of fuel at the time, was mined in the northeastern US, and had to be expensively shipped by train to Melrose and then hauled by wagon another 10 miles to Glendale. To offset costs, the smelter mixed coke with local charcoal.
To make charcoal, workers would fill the kilns with neatly stacked piles of pine logs from local forests and then burn the logs for days on end with minimal oxygen. Rather than consuming the logs, this process reduces them to almost pure carbon, creating a substance like the charcoal briquettes used in barbecues today. Loading and unloading the kilns would each take a day, and the kilns themselves would usually burn for nearly two weeks. In the hierarchy of late-1800s mining camps, wood cutters and charcoal burners were on the lowest rungs. At the Canyon Creek kilns, most of the wood cutters were probably Canadian or French Canadian, while nearly all of the charcoal burners were Italian. According to local folklore, many Italians were recruited directly from Italy to work in the Glendale area.
Though it made the map of Montana’s leading towns in 1892, the fortunes of Glendale rapidly declined in the 1890s. Mines ran out, the smelter closed in 1900 and major mining had ended by 1903. Today, Glendale and the Canyon Creek kilns are within the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, about 15 minutes off of I-15, halfway between Dillon and Wise River. Both areas are open to the public and are well worth a visit and a wander.