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Road to Jacob City leads to discovery of old kilns

13 May

The following originally appeared in the May 7, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

The view from Soldier Creek Canyon shows a beehive kiln, one of the Waterman Coking Ovens, which produced charcoal and smelted ore for the Waterman Concentrator.  (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The view from Soldier Creek Canyon shows a beehive kiln, one of the Waterman Coking Ovens, which produced charcoal and smelted ore for the Waterman Concentrator. (photo by Clint Thomsen)

by Clint Thomsen

“Is this the road to Jacob City?” I asked the man in the red jeep, who I later nicknamed Tallahassee. He tipped his straw cowboy hat and responded with an artful mix of slang and cusswords laced with the occasional proper noun, which I believe meant “I have no idea.”

“I’m from Florida,” he explained, courteously upping the ratio of real words to expletives to about 2 to 1. “Did you see those elk there? I took a picture on my phone and I’m just texting it to my buddy.”

I hadn’t seen the elk, but the texting explained his erratic driving. I had pulled up beside him partly to see if something was wrong, but also because I assumed he was a local who might know the lay of the land. My approach had taken the drifter somewhat aback, but he eased up quickly.

“I’ve been in every canyon in these mountains except for these couple,” he boasted. Then he glanced down at my little Toyota commuter car. “You goin’ up there in this?”

“Nope,” I replied, nodding toward my bike rack behind me. “I’m going up there on that.”

My rig is a high-end model Marin that a friend, the vice president of a scented candle company, paid a pretty penny for at the bike shop. When he hit the jackpot during the scented candle craze of the late nineties, he upgraded and sold the bike to me for $150.

But the years have taken their toll on the trusty cycle. This was its first outing after a cruel idle winter, and as I pedaled up the Jacob City road I could tell the bike was in need of some serious TLC. I followed Tallahassee’s Jeep up the canyon, keeping pace for a while but eventually falling back as the gravel road continued on a moderate but steady incline.

The old ghost town of Jacob City sits at an elevation of 8500 feet at the top of Dry Canyon, where spring has yet to announce its arrival. With a western horizon filled with malevolent clouds and only a few hours left of daylight, I didn’t intend to ride all the way to the top. Instead, I planned to ride until either the rain or dusk turned me back.

What I didn’t plan on were the chain-suck problems caused by hard cranking on a worn chainwheel. Only a mile or so up the road, an ill-timed gear shift snagged my chain and jammed it, stopping me dead in my tracks. This happened several more times until I reached the sign marking the Jacob City Loop Trail, where I finally decided to turn around. To add insult to injury, the first wave of rains hit as I began my ascent, soaking me by the time I reached my car.

Fortunately I had a backup plan. Curt Hall of ExpeditionUtah.com had sent me information about the remains of several old charcoal kilns in nearby Soldier Creek Canyon, which date back to at least the mid 1870’s. My overriding goal for this trip had been to experience some sign of Tooele County’s rich mining heritage, and I would have just enough daylight to visit the kilns.

The gravel road was iffy in a few spots, but my car handled it fine. I had mapped the location of the kilns using my GPS receiver and Google Maps on my cell phone. High resolution satellite imagery allowed me to formulate a near perfect vision off the scene as I drove into the canyon. Three of the kilns were visible from the satellite imagery. A fourth kiln and several other foundations were apparent once I arrived.

According to the Utah State Historical Society’s Utah History to Go project, the kilns were known as the Waterman Coking Ovens and were used to produce charcoal and to smelt ore for the Waterman concentrator. The kilns marked a central location nearly equidistant from their timber source at Bald Mountain and the Ophir and Rush Valley mines, which they served.

The most prominent among the ruins are those of a beehive-shaped kiln, with an interior diameter measuring 13.5 feet. When fully intact, the kiln was topped by a parabolic dome with an opening near the top for feeding wood. The walls of the kiln were still intact with 3 foot wide arched opening near the base for the removal of concentrates and ashes.

Also on the site are the ruins of several stone buildings. The operation was intensive, and the kilns needed frequent maintenance. The UHTG website notes that during operation, a community of 15 to 20 workers and their families lived near the kilns. The kilns were used until about 1899 and the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

The kilns are on private property, so I viewed and photographed it from the road. In the interest of their preservation, I’ll refrain from giving detailed directions to them here.

Another wave of rain closed in on me as I drove out of the canyon. I paused for a moment before leaving and pondered the curious combination of wilderness, raw history, and modern technology that had framed my little adventure. I turned off my GPS receiver and closed Google Maps. I was there– no need for satellite imagery any more.

I might have texted a picture or two of the kilns to Tallahassee, but I didn’t have his number. That’s all right– he probably would have driven off a cliff while viewing them anyway.

TRIP TIPS

To get to the areas described, follow Silver Avenue eastward from Stockton for 2.2 miles to a fork in the road. The south fork narrows considerably and leads about 8.2 miles to the Jacob City area. The north fork leads into Soldier Creek Canyon. Land on both sides of both roads is privately owned. The kilns, mines, and tailings piles are to be viewed only from the road. High clearance vehicle or 4WD is recommended for both roads.

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