Wednesday, May 11, 2016


So there you are stuck in the mid-nineteenth century, wandering aimlessly around the Nevada Territory and you stumble onto an ore deposit.  Maybe gold, maybe silver... something that should make your fortune.  But there are no trains in the area yet and transporting ore is impossibly difficult and expensive by horse drawn wagon.  The thing to do is get the precious metal out of the rock and just transport that, leaving all those tons of dross behind.  So you build yourself a smelter.  But now you have a new problem.  To get your smelter to work you've got to get it hot.  Really hot.  There is no coal in these parts and wood doesn't burn hot enough to get the job done. But wait... wood can be turned into charcoal by partially burning it with limited oxygen to get rid of  water and impurities and turn it into nearly pure carbon.  This will get your smelter to 2300 °F, which will do the trick.

When we visited Plimouth Plantation a couple of years ago we watched them making charcoal by piling up wood and covering it with dirt to limit the air supply (you can read about that here).  That would make enough charcoal to melt some iron and run your blacksmith shop, but it's not very efficient.  A cord of wood will only get you 25 bushels of charcoal by this method.  And to smelt gold you need 50 bushels of charcoal for every ton of ore, so you need a somewhat bigger operation.  Build yourself one of these...
One of the Ward charcoal ovens 10 mi east of Ely, Nev
Six little charcoal ovens all in a row
About 10 miles east of Ely, Nevada are a set of charcoal ovens built in the 1870s.  These stone beehives are 27 feet across and 30 feet high and would hold 35 cords of wood per load and with very carefully controlled air flow would produce 50 bushels of good charcoal per cord, twice what those New Englanders got.  So the six ovens combined could produce about 10,500 bushels of charcoal per 12 day burn cycle.  They were used for gold mining operations in the town of Ward (which is no more, except for the foundation of the stamp mill) for about 3 years until the gold ran out.  This was a good thing because by then they had burnt every tree in a 35 mile radius.  For every oven load they stripped 5-6 acres bare of timber.
View of an oven from the inside
The Nevada Northern Railroad Museum
No significant gold was ever found  where we stayed in Ely itself but copper was abundant and became valuable enough to be worth mining by about 1906.  By this time there were plenty of railroads in the area and they built a spur line down to Ely to bring in coal for smelting and heavy equipment for mining.  Trains brought the ore from the mines to the smelter up the road a ways in the town of Ruth and then carried the crude metal back east where it was further refined for use in the big manufacturing cities. 

Office facing the rail yard.
They built a largish train yard for the railroad which still stands, though the rail service was stopped when the copper mine closed in the 1960s.  The rail yard now houses the Nevada Northern Railway Museum which we visited while there.  It is somewhat bigger than the one we visited in Boulder City.  They have half a dozen early 1900s steam engines and run excursions on what is left of the tracks on weekends (which we missed).  They've also preserved the train station/platform including the business offices which we toured, looking at lots of old photos and antique office equipment.  An elderly docent opened the safe and showed us books full of employee payment records going back to the 1920s. 

The engine house
At the far end of the yard is an engine house and workshop where they are apparently constantly working on refurbishing these old locomotives.  They have a bunch of metal lathes and cutters so they can make parts that have long gone out of commercial production.  We were there mid-week but three guys were in there toiling away.  Pretty dedicated for a volunteer work crew.


Copper prices crashed in the 1960s and the whole operation shut down but copper values rebounded  at the turn of the century and they re-opened the copper mine in 2004.  The smelter is long gone as are the rail lines so the ore is now transported by truck to Seattle where it is loaded on ships and taken all the way to refineries in Japan.  Hard to believe that's the cheapest way to get copper but who am I to question the modern day robber barons?

Cave Lake
We got to Ely by taking US Hwy 50, "The Lonliest Road in America".  About 8 miles east of town we saw a turn off to something called Cave Lake so we took an opportunity to go back and check it out later during our stay.  Seven miles up the road was the lake which was nice but to drive in and look around would have cost us another $7 and it wasn't clear there was anything there we couldn't see from the entrance.  Having been fooled before by the Nevada State Parks system, we decided not to go in.  The pavement ended at the lake but the road continued up into the mountains for 33 miles as something called "The Success Loop" , so we decided to explore that instead. 

Along the Success Loop
An ominous sign informed us that the road could be treacherous when wet or icy.  It seemed pretty dry where we were so off we went.  The dirt road was steep and very tortuous but the scenery was lovely to look at.  We tumbled along for about 10 or 12 miles , until we reached the retreating snow level.  Up there, the melt runoff made the road wet and the resulting mud was slick as snot.  There were another 20 miles of loop and we might have made it in our all-wheel-drive Subaru, but we decided discretion was the better part and all that and turned around to go back the way we had come.

Spotted while we were getting the car turned around
After 4 days in Ely we prepared to move on.  I decided to check our tire pressure, which we are supposed to do every travel day but which I actually get to only once every two or three weeks.  We
The view from our camping spot in Ely
had replaced our tires over the winter so I wasn't expecting any problems.  I started with the right front and the pressure was fine but when I removed the tire gauge - PSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS...  the valve was stuck.  I fiddled with it for a little bit without making any difference, then I struggled to get the valve cap back on to control the air loss.  We got hold of a tire place in Ely and they said they would send someone out.  While we waited I went ahead and checked the other tires.  The rears were OK, all six of  'em.  Then I checked the left front and - PSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS...   same damn thing. 

The tire guy showed up and promptly took the valves out of the stems and replaced them and that stopped the PSSSSSSSSSSing.  He showed me the old valves which were all gunked up.  Apparently they had replaced the tires but not the valve stems, which is pretty automatic on a car.  He then re-aired the tires and we were good to go.  I decided a tire valve removal tool and an handful of spare valves would be a useful addition to my travel tool kit.

Bonus Pics

We  found an old fashioned drug store with an old fashioned soda fountain

Ancient fuse box at the old rail station

Early 20th century word processor

Old payroll records, just in case they get audited

More trains
Getting a haircut in a barbershop older than me


  1. We missed that scenic drive when we were there. Maybe when we get there in a couple weeks we can do that. We were able to take the train ride.

  2. We missed that scenic drive when we were there. Maybe when we get there in a couple weeks we can do that. We were able to take the train ride.