Cottonwood Charcoal Kilns (No. 537 California Historical Landmark)

The Cottonwood Charcoal Kilns in Inyo County stand as a reminder of the tremendous impact of the Gold Rush on forests and landscapes. These beehive shaped structures are located alongside what used to be Cottonwood Creek, and a part of the larger story of Owens Lake before its water was diverted to nourish the Los Angeles Basin. Today, Cottonwood Creek is long gone and most of what is left of Owens Lake is a dry lake bed.

The Cottonwood kilns were built to provide charcoal to the rich Cerro Gordo mine, 10 miles to the east and across Owens Lake in Inyo County. The wealth of the Cerro Gordo mine in the 1860s totaled nearly $20 million in silver and lead bullion. After all the trees surrounding the mine had been cut down, miners began cutting Cottonwood trees alongside Cottonwood Creek to keep the kilns at the mines burning. With so much raw ore to process and refine, the kilns at the mine had an insatiable appetite for charcoal.

Colonel Sherman Stevens built a saw mill near the kilns in 1873 and began cutting down the Cottonwood trees.  Trees were cut for lumber used during mine construction and other related building projects.  Colonel Sherman also built theOwens Lake Silver-Lead Furnace, California Historical Landmark No. 752 near Keeler.

Once trees were cut or burned, the cargo began its long journey into the mountains. First, the wood was loaded onto a desert steamer, either the “Bessie Brady,” or the “Mollie Stevens,” to cross Owens Lake to the shipping port at Keeler. During the years that Owens Lake was filled with water, Keeler had been a thriving trade center for the Cerro Gordo mine. Keeler’s population in 1870 was 5,000. After arriving on shore, the next leg of the journey to Cerro Gordo mine was loading cargo into wagons led by horses or mules to haul it up the mountainside to the mine.

The Historical Landmark marker is located one mile east of Highway 395 (P.M. 44.5) and seven miles north of Cartago.

Inyo County

Inyo means “dwelling place of great spirit” in Paiute Native American language. Inyo County has many “greats.” Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States and Death Valley, the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere, are both within Inyo’s boundaries. Great earthquakes have left their mark in recent history, changing the course of the Owens River and exposing ancient sedimentary rock.

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Latitude: 36.3809463 Longitude: -118.0234623 Elevation: 3683 ft

About this Establishment

California Historical Landmarks Program

Historical Landmarks are sites, buildings, features, or events that are of statewide significance and have anthropological, cultural, military, political, architectural, economic, scientific or technical, religious, experimental, or other value. Historical Landmarks are eligible for registration if they meet at least one of the following criteria:

1) Is the first, last, only, or most significant of its type in the state or within a large geographic region

2) Is associated with an individual or group having a profound influence on the history of California

3) Is a prototype of, or an outstanding example of, a period, style, architectural movement or construction or is one of the more notable works or the best surviving work in a region of a pioneer architect, designer or master builder.

California’s Landmark Program began in the late 1800s with the formation of the Landmarks Club and the California Historical Landmarks League. In 1931, the program became official when legislation charged the Department of Natural Resources—and later the California State Chamber of Commerce—with registering and marking buildings of historical interest or landmarks. The Chamber of Commerce then created a committee of prestigious historians, including DeWitt Hutchings and Lawrence Hill, to evaluate potential landmark sites.

In 1948, Governor Earl Warren created the California Historical Landmarks Advisory Committee to increase the integrity and credibility of the program. Finally, this committee was changed to the California Historical Resources Commission in 1974. Information about registered landmarks numbered 770 onward is kept in the California Register of Historical Resources authoritative guide. Landmarks numbered 669 and below were registered prior to establishing specific standards, and may be added to the California Register when criteria for evaluating the properties are adopted.

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Time Period Represented



I believe that the trees burned in the kilns were not cottonwood, since the Kilns are named for nearby Cottonwood Creek. The trees were brought down from the nearby Sierra Nevada.

Linda Hubbs, 6/4/2015

The website shows a barbed wire fence surrounding the kilns. I was wondering whether this is a more recent development, as the photos on this page don't seem to show any fencing. Thanks!

Ken Lee, 8/3/2015

Wondering what the purpose of the concrete walls through what appears to be a dike was near the kilns.

Joan Stevens., 5/2/2016

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