Piedmont is a ghost town. The few remaining buildings, with empty windows and collapsing roofs, are surrounded by sagebrush. The town’s settlers are buried in small graveyards on the hills.
A sheepherder was the last resident. He froze to death in 1949, which is a little ironic because the southwestern Wyoming community of Piedmont used to be a hot town.
Settled in about 1867, Piedmont drew folks like moths to a flame. Most came to build the railroad, but some tended fires in the town’s charcoal kilns, which provided fuel for Utah’s mining industry.
Three of the original kilns, built in 1869, still stand. Beehive-shaped and made of stone, the kilns measure 30 feet high and 30 feet across.
Recognizing the historical importance of the site, the state of Wyoming purchased the kilns some years back. This past summer, state workers did some preservation work and erected signs explaining the kilns’ origins and purpose.
The rest of the old town buildings are on private land, owned by descendants of the original pioneer settlers who moved there from Weber County.
Piedmont’s charcoal kilns were built by Moses Byrne. Born in England in 1820, Byrne joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and immigrated to Utah in 1854.
According to family histories, Byrne met Catherine Cardon while crossing the plains in the same pioneer company, and married her six days after arriving in Utah; they lived in Slaterville. A few years later, he took another wife, Anne Beus.
In the early 1860s, Byrne contracted with the Overland Stage Company to build stations in Wyoming and Utah. Beus stayed in Ogden, and Byrne settled in the station at Muddy Creek, Wyo., with Cardon.
“When Moses heard that the railroad was coming through, he decided to come up and do the kilns, so he called for my great-great- grandfather to come and run the stage stop,” said Wendy Peterson, who lives on the ranch that encompasses Piedmont.
Peterson’s great-great- grandfather, Charles Guild, was married to Marie Cardon, sister of Moses Byrne’s wife.
“They named the town Piedmont, after Piedmont, Italy, where they (the Cardon sisters) were born,” Peterson said.
It cost Byrne about $1,000 each to build his kilns, said Peterson, and he built five.
“He had 50 teams of horses, at one time, hauling timber down out of the mountains for them,” she said.
Workers loaded wood into a kiln through a ground-level door, then added more through a window near the top. The door and window were sealed, and the wood set on fire. Small holes around the bottom of the kiln were opened and closed during the burning process, which took six to eight days.
“They had to be regulated just right so that it wouldn’t all be consumed,” Peterson said.
The end result was charcoal — carbon fuel that burned hotter, longer and cleaner than wood.
Most of Byrne’s charcoal was sent to Utah, for the mining industry.
“The mining industry was a real economic boon to the state of Utah,” said Philip F. Notarianni, director of Utah’s Division of State History. “The charcoal would be used as fuel to fire furnaces, to create heat to smelt the different metals down.”
Peterson says the charcoal was also used to fuel trains and stoves.
“Some of it was so fine they even sent it back East for artists to draw with,” she said.
Wild, wild West
Piedmont’s population quickly grew to 500. In addition to tents for railroad construction crews and loggers, there were about 20 buildings. The town had a school, two stores, several wood and log homes, a roundhouse for trains, and a hotel. There was even a boot hill.
“There were five saloons here at one time,” said Peterson.
Calamity Jane lived in Piedmont for a while, and Butch Cassidy met his gang in Piedmont before robbing a bank in Idaho, according to the signs placed in Piedmont by the state of Wyoming.
Guild’s store was robbed one evening, while most folks were at the school for a dance.
“Some teenagers talked my (great-great-) grandpa into going and opening the store, and getting some candy out. ... Just as he was unlocking the front door, an explosion went off,” Peterson said. “They found out the safe had been blown and somebody had stolen their money.”
The heel of a shoe was left behind, so Peterson’s great-great uncle hopped a train to Evanston.
“He found a man without a heel, and made a citizen’s arrest for the robbery,” she said.
Sometimes, vigilantes took over.
“If they caught somebody, they would take them back here, where there are some cottonwood trees, and they would hang them there by their thumbs ... until the pain got so severe they would confess. Then they’d hang )them properly,” Peterson said.
Family stories, passed down through generations, tell of Moses Byrne’s 2-year-old child being kidnapped by the Sioux and returned two years later by Chief Washakie of the Shoshone.
Washakie is also said to have given Charles Guild a pair of beaded moccasins, and his wife a beaded purse, after finding out that a few members of his band barged into their home demanding alcohol.
“The purse is still in the family, and we take turns passing it around,” Peterson said.
A golden spike was driven in Utah on May 10, 1869, to commemorate the completion of the country’s first transcontinental railroad. It was planned for a few days earlier, but events in Piedmont caused a delay.
Union Pacific workers, who’d heard the company was bankrupt, piled ties on the tracks to stop the train carrying Thomas Durant to the ceremony, according to information signs in the town.
“They surrounded the car,” Peterson said, “and they said they wanted their money.”
Durant, vice president of Union Pacific, was held hostage in Piedmont until the workers’ back pay was delivered, the signs say.
Death of Piedmont
Piedmont grew with the coming of the railroad, and it died when the railroad left.
“The last train was in 1901,” Peterson said. “The grade up here was so steep, they had to use helper engines, and they had to have two or three to help pull the trains over the top.”
To cut expenses, the railroad dug a mile-long tunnel through Aspen Mountain, bypassing Piedmont. Without the trains, loggers couldn’t ship lumber and Byrne didn’t have an economical way to get his charcoal to Utah.
The Guild family runs cattle where the town once stood. They moved the old schoolhouse and one pioneer home down the street to their ranch headquarters. A neighbor uses the original Guild homestead as a garage. The rest of the buildings are slowly decaying.
Moses and Catherine Byrne are buried in a cemetery on the hill above town. In a small, private cemetery hidden in the hills nearby, Charles and Marie Guild rest near the graves of their family members. An elaborate headstone and fence mark where they buried the youngest of their 11 children, a young woman who died shortly after returning to Piedmont from college.
“She was their baby,” said Peterson. “They say he (Charles) never got over it.”
The kilns were sold to the state for preservation, and are open to the public.
The smell of smoke still lingers inside, where the stones are blackened by years of fire.
IF YOU GO
DRIVE TIME: About 1 hour and 45 minutes from Ogden.
HOW TO GET THERE: Take Interstate 80 east to Wyoming. Get off I-80 at Exit 24, Leroy Road (this is east of Evanston, but not as far as Fort Bridger). A sign at the bottom of the exit ramp directs travelers to Piedmont via County Road 173, a dirt road that is a former railroad grade. The kilns are about seven miles south.
HOURS: Open daylight hours
WHAT TO SEE AND DO: Three standing charcoal kilns, and the foundations of two others. Just beyond the kilns is the ghost town of Piedmont.
FACILITIES: None. Be sure to fill up your vehicle’s gas tank, and use the restroom, before heading to Piedmont.
ACCESSIBILITY: The kilns and town can be viewed from the road. To see inside the kilns, you must use wooden stairs.
Charcoal kilns are all over the West
Charcoal kilns similar to the ones in Piedmont, Wyo., dot the West.
“I confess to being kind of a kiln fanatic. I’ve seen hundreds and never get tired of them,” said Philip Varney of Tucson, Ariz., the author of “Ghost Towns of the Mountain West” (Voyageur Press, 2010). “They’re engineering marvels, because they’re unsupported through the middle.”
Varney says the kilns in Piedmont are quite photogenic.
“I think kilns have sort of a special look, like something from an ancient civilization,” he said. “They look so different, and so beautiful.”
The first kilns Varney saw were in Arizona, and he was curious enough that he swam the Gila River to get a closer look. He also enjoys visiting the Nicholia Charcoal Kilns in Idaho’s Birch Creek Valley, and the partial kilns at Idaho’s Bayhorse ghost town. Ward Charcoal Kilns, southeast of Ely, Nev., are among his favorites because there are so many and they’re well-preserved.
In Utah, Varney recommends the Frisco Kilns west of Milford. Last time he was there, five kilns were intact, but showed signs of vandalism.
“Frisco is a ghost towner’s dream,” said Varney. “It has a good cemetery ... and still has remnants of the town.”
Philip F. Notorianni, director of the Utah Division of State History, says if you go into the hills of former mining areas, you could probably find more kilns, because they were needed to produce charcoal to smelt the metal.
“Kilns were often put at a source of lumber, and close to where a smelter operation was,” he said. “If you had a mining operation and wanted to only send high-grade materials to market, because it cost money to transport it by wagon or train, you would build a smelter close to where the mine was, and often the kilns were near there.”
The Piedmont kilns, owned by the state of Wyoming, and are open to the public.
The Byrne family cemetery is still a registered cemetery, so reverent visitors may pay their respects.
But the ghost town of Piedmont is on private land owned by the Guild family.
“It’s our heritage,” said Wendy Peterson, a descendant of Charles and Marie Guild, who were among the town’s first settlers. “We realize it’s many others’ heritage, also, and if they want to see it, we don’t want to be stingy.”
Peterson says visitors are welcome, as long as they respect the land and don’t bother the cattle.
The family asks that visitors park only on the county road, and walk from there to any sites.
Of course, vandalism of any kind is prohibited — that includes digging for or removing anything, even rocks, from the property. Some visitors have caused the collapse of buildings by removing wood or stone.
Taking pictures is fine, but because the buildings are unstable, visitors should be careful and should not go inside them.
GHOST TOWN ADVICE
Philip Varney, author of “Ghost Towns of the Mountain West” (Voyageur Press, 2010) offers this advice for enjoying a visit to Piedmont, or any other ghost town:
- Find out about the town’s history.
- Go to the library, to copy and study a government-made topographic map of the town. It may reveal details such as kilns and railroad grades. (A freehand drawing of Piedmont can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piedmont,_Wyoming.)
- At the town, drive end to end, or walk end to end, to get a feel for the place.
- Be respectful of the locals. Don’t be obnoxious, but if you meet someone who lives near town, be friendly and listen to their stories. “If you go to a ghost town and meet only ghosts, you will have missed some of the greatest treasures there,” said Varney.