In the early 1880s, the silver mining industry in Aspen and the upper Roaring Fork Valley was red-hot, and, at that time, the Fryingpan Valley was forested with trees. Those two facts came together to create one of Basalt's most iconic displays of history along the edge of Arbaney Park in the Elk Run neighborhood, the Fryingpan Charcoal Kilns.
But what are the kilns, what were they used for and why are they important?
“The kilns inform us of who we are today, and where we came from,” explains Bernie Grauer, a former Basalt town councilman and current member of Basalt's planning commission. “The kilns have a very unique architecture, and they are a monument that has tremendous emotional and historical connection to town.”
The seven beehive-shaped Fryingpan charcoal kilns were constructed one at a time, in the early 1880s, on the south bank of the Fryingpan River near the confluence of the Roaring Fork, until all seven were in use in 1884.
The kilns are roughly 25 feet in diameter, tower about 25 feet high and taper up to a small crown. The charcoal kilns were constructed of unfired brick and native stone, with an outside coating of standard mortar for protection from the elements. The kilns have upper and lower openings, typical for this type of processing. The openings were used for ventilation and for the addition of fuel and the removal of the charcoal produced, according to Basalt historical records.
According to the book Colorado Midland Railway, the kilns were originally painted white so that any smoke that escaped could be detected.
Silver mining produced raw ore that required smelting before being shipped for refinement. Smelting is a process where heat is applied to the ore in order to extract the base metal, which in the Aspen mines at that time was silver. The heat used in smelting was charcoal.
Charcoal burns hotter than wood and there was a high demand from the Aspen smelters for refining charcoal. While the kilns were constructed for the Aspen Silver Co. who constructed them is a bit of a question.
The Sept. 13, 1884, edition of The Aspen Times notes that large charcoal kilns were being constructed “under the direction of Mr. Horace Deverem, near Fryingpan, where they get pinion to burn.” By Nov. 1, 1884, the Rocky Mountain Sun attributed the ownership of the kilns to “McMurchy, Wilson and Courerscheuse” with 20 men working to construct additional kilns, with each kiln capable of creating “150 bushels of charcoal.”
A community grows around the kilns
The availability of fuel from the vast stands of pine and pinion trees in the Fryingpan Valley was the prime reason for the selection of the kiln’s location.
A settlement of tents and shacks, including a saloon and a store, flourished around the kilns, and the little community became known as Fryingpan. In the days before the railroad, horses and mules hauled the charcoal up to Aspen. With the coming of the Colorado Midland Railroad in 1887, the town of Aspen Junction was formed across the Fryingpan River from the kilns, and most of Basalt's first residents in Fryingpan soon relocated there.
The Fryingpan kilns ceased to operate in 1887. The kilns were used as equipment and grain storage for the ranching operations of various families and began to weather and deteriorate in the harsh winter conditions. As Basalt started to grow and subdivisions sprouted on the former ranches, the town purchased the kiln property as part of Arbaney Park.
By 2007, the charcoal kilns were all but forgotten as they decomposed and disintegrated when a group of concerned citizens formed to protect and restore the kilns.
“The kilns are located in Arbaney Park in the Elk Run neighborhood where I live. A few Elk Run residents and I saw the decrepit state of the kilns, they had fallen into bad disrepair, and became concerned about preserving what is a very important part of Basalt’s history,” explains Grauer, a member of the citizens group. “Visually speaking, the kilns are iconic to the town, its history and its development.”
According to Grauer, the group of “six to eight” Basalt residents, “advised the town, mobilized the town, and supported the town’s application to the state historical fund” for monies to preserve and restore some of the kilns. Vandals and weather had collapsed a couple of the kilns. An engineering firm was hired to stabilize one of the most threatened kilns.
“One (kiln) was in imminent danger of collapsing, and they put a large tarp tent over it to preserve it for the winter before it was restored,” says Grauer.
The town of Basalt’s planning department and its then senior planner Brian McNellis applied to the state for funds to save the kilns. After receiving state grants in the amount of about $250,000 and using a matching grant of $85,000 from the town, a Denver firm, Building Restoration Specialties, stabilized and restored as much of the original kilns as they could. Crumbling bricks and mortar were replaced and some of the bricks were originals that came from the collapsed kilns. The work was completed in 2010.
The kilns are a historical asset that the town can use to attract tourists and other local visitors, and they can be used in the town’s marketing and branding efforts, according to Grauer.
“I would like to see them used (in our branding efforts),” he says. “The kilns are on the town’s website, and they are an icon of the town's history.”
If you want to visit the Fryingpan charcoal kilns, walk over or drive to Arbaney Park and look for them on the north side edge. Two plaques detail their history and a fenced enclosure protects them from vandals.