Having only heard about the San Francisco Mountains near Milford, I looked forward to doing some exploring there. I was especially interested in learning more about the charcoal kilns that still exist near the ghost town of Frisco.
After having enjoyed the hospitality of Beaver, our little caravan left town and trailered to the Frisco Mountains. The Mineral Mountains are west of Beaver and the Frisco Mountains are across the valley from them. We went through Minersville and staged 14 miles west of Milford.
This is a pretty piece of country. The trail wound through a forest of juniper trees about 8 miles in a northerly direction before we came to the charcoal kilns.
They are shaped like a beehive and there are five of them standing about 26 feet high. Their preservation is quite pristine. I enjoyed exploring in and around them.
As much as I was fascinated about them, I was more interested in learning about their purpose. They were built to make charcoal for a smelter that processed the precious metals taken out of the Frisco Mine.
What I learned came from a “Historic American Engineering Record” from the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. Before the kilns were built, the process of making charcoal was done in large stone-lined pits. Pinion pine was stacked in the pits and set on fire. When the fire was right, it was covered with dirt and sod and allowed to smolder until the fire burned itself out — about 15 to 20 days. What remained was a black residue of wood with all the organic material removed, leaving an almost pure carbon. It would burn in smelter furnaces with no smoke and with an intense heat. I know these things from my early experiences of learning to barbecue steak. There is no smoke, but there is plenty of heat and you have to pay attention.
In the 1870s, the pits were abandoned for beehive-shaped kilns. The expense of building them was offset by the fact that it proved more efficient, less wasteful, and produced a higher-quality charcoal. The smelter was using 510,000 pounds of charcoal a month, so the kilns were operating at peak capacity to meet the demand.
The kilns faded into history when coke replaced charcoal. It was cheaper and made for a better fuel.
The mining operation supported the little town of Frisco. With a population of 800 when at the peak of operations, I was left to wonder what life would be like in Frisco.
The town had no water supply. Whatever water they were able to get had to be hauled in by wagon and shared by 800 people. Mining and manning the kilns would be pretty dirty jobs so I don’t imagine that it was much of a tourist town.
If you lived in Frisco, you would have had one of several jobs. According to the 1880 census, you would be one of four coal contractors who over saw the production of charcoal. You might be one of 21 coal burners who manned the kilns or you might be one of two wood contractors who supplied the wood for the kilns. Perhaps you would be one of five wood choppers or one of seven stone masons or the only brick mason in town. Your chance of being a high adventure tour guide would be slim to none.
There were hot springs about a day’s journey by wagon east at Mag’s. The establishment consisted of a saloon, a hotel and three pools fed by hot springs with each pool being a different temperature. Each week, Mag would send wagons to Frisco to bring miners back to bathe in the pools, have a meal and a drink in the saloon, and sleep in a clean bed. What a life — come to Mag’s once a week for a bath whether you need it or not.
We left the five kilns near Frisco and stopped at another set of kilns to have lunch. There are several kilns in the Frisco Mountains, but those that are best preserved are the ones by Frisco.
After lunch, we continued our weavings among the trees until we came to a main road which took us back to the trucks, finishing a ride of 26 miles. When you go, take plenty of water, keep the rubber side down, and if you worked in Frisco, you might look forward to a soak in hot springs at Mag’s.