$2.5 million of fire and ore

Charcoal Kilns Photo credit: Janai Smith

Note: Historic information is provided by the United States Forest Service and Idaho Historic Society, available to read at the charcoal kilns historic site.

Nestled in Birch Creek Valley lies a group of historic charcoal kilns, old buildings the color of honey and the shape of an upside-down beehive.

Over a hundred years ago, miners discovered ore in Spring Mountain. Men and women filtered through the valley building log homes and establishing small towns such as Camas, Nicholia (renamed Hahn) and Gilmore to make a living from the minerals in the mountain.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the Viola Mine was discovered in 1881 and produced about $2.5 million worth of lead and silver by the time it ran dry in 1888.

Photo credit: Janai Smith

The miners carried ore down from the mountain in large wagons pulled by as many as 20 horses. Originally, the men carried the ore to Camas, 67 miles away from the mine in the large wagons, until Nicholia built its own smelter. The smelters extracted silver and lead from the ore, but required large amounts of fuel to operate, so the miners built 16 charcoal kilns in 1886.

The charcoal kilns sat 10 miles from Nicholia and provided coal for the smelters until the ore ran out and the smelter shut down. Twelve of the kilns were torn down to reuse the bricks for other buildings, and four remain standing today.

Each kiln stands nearly 20 feet tall and one foot thick. They have two doors, one on each side where the miners would throw the wood through. Once the kiln was filled with wood, they would seal the doors and set the wood on fire, controlling the air through vents at the bottom. After the wood had burned, they extracted the coal, loaded it on wagons, and took it to the smelters in Nicholia. In about a week and a half, they could turn 800 cords (2000-3000 pounds) of wood into coal.

Photo credit: Janai Smith

When ore ran out, the smelter and town never recovered. All that’s left of the mine is rotted timber and old shafts of wood. Many of the miners had to abandon their towns, and eventually the falling prices of lead and other development caused the end of most towns in Birch Valley — except for Camas, which still has a few scattered homes.

All that’s left of Nicholia (Hahn) is the foundation of structures, pits and a map marking the historic location. While Gilmore was one of the most successful towns, it eventually came to its end as well. The lead and silver produced at Gilmore was second only to a mine in Coeur D’Alene. However, an explosion destroyed their powerhouse in 1927 and brought their production to a stop. The mines closed, and Gilmore became nothing more than an old ghost town.

Dust and sagebrush have consumed the old dirt roads that used to connect the old towns, the homes rotting and overtaken by the wild grass and shrubs of the land.

Some of the only surviving structures are the four charcoal kilns. The Targhee National Forest maintains the historic site and has helped preserve the kilns by adding steel pipes to prevent collapse, and gates to keep out animals.

Photo credit: Janai Smith

While the red clay bricks crumble off the domed structures, scattering the ground with bricks and dust, the historic buildings serve as a reminder of the once populated Birch Valley. Deer, elk, antelope, wolves and coyotes roam the valley, wandering through the mountains and national forest while the last remains of human life rot away.

Visitors can now follow the short self-guided trails around the charcoal kilns and read the information plaques placed by the United States Department of Agriculture and Forest Service to learn the short history of the miners at Birch Valley. The historic site remains free for visitors to enjoy.

To get to the charcoal kilns, travel west of Dubois, Idaho on ID-22W. Continue for about 30 miles, then turn right onto ID-28N for about 36 miles before turning right again onto Spring Mountain Road. You can then follow the signs The United States Department of Agriculture put up to mark the historic site.

Photo credit: Janai Smith