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 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.