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Cottonwood Charcoal Kilns

Archaeological Site
Cottonwood charcoal kilns around 1920.

In 1874 silver was struck in the Coso Range, on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada located along iconic Highway 395. Within two years all the nearby timber had been exhausted. Sherman Stevens’s entrepreneurial spirit set to work. He formed the Inyo Lumber and Coal Company in April of 1876. Working with partner J.B. Bond he developed a capital stock worth $500,000 and extended the flume the last three miles to the Cottonwood Landing.

By January 1877 he was burning bricks for two charcoal kilns near the wharf. A thirty-two foot tug was built in San Francisco, hauled by Southern Pacific Railroad as far as Mojave and then carried by Remi Nadeau’s teams to Owens Lake. It was christened the Mollie Stevens and would carry charcoal across the lake to Swansea where ore was processed.

Things had always been difficult. Steven’s empire began to suffer misfortune almost immediately. A fire in September 1877 swept the canyon destroying part of the flume and 64,000 feet of cut logs worth between $5000 and $6000. Then the mines began to falter. Many of the miners rushed off to Mammoth Lakes and Bodie. The engine from the Mollie Stevens was put in the large Bessie Brady. The smaller ship lay at the Cottonwood Landing rotting. The Bessie Brady finally burned at the Cerro Gordo landing in 1882.

Stevens left the Owens Valley in 1883, his empire in ruins. He went to pursue mining interests elsewhere at 73. He returned to the area later and died in Lone Pine in 1887.

History adventurers can still see what remains of the two charcoal kilns as the return slowly back to the earth. While protected by wire fences, they have developed growing holes in their tops. Pieces of the flume could still be seen, as could the now roofless sawmill with its rusting equipment until a fire swept through the area and destroyed the wooden buildings.

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