Monday, February 29, 2016

The Coke Ovens of the Gila River

February 22, 2016 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Recently I interviewed Mr. James Copeman, owner of the historic Coke Oven Ranch near Florence. The Coke Ovens are on private property that includes some 189 acres of land. Many people and visitors believe the Coke Ovens are open to the public to view. Mr. Copeman advised me the Coke Ovens and the 189 acres around the area are closed to the public, no exceptions.  

Citations will be issued for criminal trespass by the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, the Arizona Fish and Game Department, or Ranch property patrols from now on. During the past ten years the ranch house has been destroyed and hauled off. The Coke Ovens are slowly being hauled away piece by piece. Also stones are being hauled away for souvenirs and to be cut up and used for bookends. My friends and readers—this is malicious and willful destruction of a historic landmark that appears on the National Registry of Historic Places as the Butte-Cochran Charcoal Ovens.

The “beehives,” as many old timers call them, present a very special visual to the Arizona backcountry. The search for gold and treasure in the Superstition Mountain area has guided many a treasure hunter down to the area on Gila River near Twin Buttes appropriately named North Butte and South Butte. The Gila River flows between the two buttes. Many treasure hunters believe the buttes are the starting point on the Peralta Stone Maps. However, the stone maps are phony and were created by a man named Travis E. Tumlinson. Many people believe these stone maps will lead them to treasure. There are those who disagree with this explanation that the stone maps are somehow connected with the area.

The surrounding mountains still harbor evidence of by-gone days. The coke ovens are among the historical remnants. They are located on a site which overlooks the Gila River, approximately 15 miles east of Florence. There are five ovens, wonderfully preserved, surviving in an area so remote and inaccessible that the lack of disturbance is easily understood. 
The Coke Ovens and the historic Coke Oven Ranch is located across the river one and a quarter miles west of the old Cochran town site along the Gila River and the Southern Pacific Railroad.

The Coke Ovens were constructed sometime during the 1870s to fire mesquite and to make coke for smelting ore.

Mr. Copeman said he believes the Coke Ovens were actually used to make coke for smelting gold ore from the area. There is a slag dump in the proximity of the Coke Ovens. The research I have seen stated the ovens were never actually used, however, all research is subject to debate.

Cochran was a small mining camp located about fifteen miles east of Florence along the Gila River. The town was established in 1905 and John S. Cochran was appointed postmaster January 3, 1905. The post office was discontinued on January 15, 1915. The town at its peak had an approximate population of one hundred residents. The town included a general store and boarding house.

Ironically, the old Coke Ovens are a historic landmark east of Florence, Arizona along the Gila River and the Southern Pacific Railroad. Again the Coke Ovens and the 189 acres around them are privately owned land and are closed to the public. Criminal trespass is a serious offense in Arizona and destruction of a historic landmark on the National Registry could be a federal offense.

The ovens were used to reduce mesquite wood to coke, a hotter burning fuel, for use in smelting gold and silver ore taken from surrounding mines. The beehive-shaped stone coke ovens are each about 25 feet in diameter and 30 feet in height. Each has a ground level entry and a few upper level vents. The mesquite wood, burned slowly in the ovens for days, yielded the coke. The new fuel was then transported directly across the Gila River to the community of Cochran (now a ghost town) and the smelters there.
I am certain most people will respect private property. Hopefully, all my readers do. We must work together to protect historical places and the Sonoran Desert from vandals, thieves, taggers and those who use off road vehicles. The public lands are for us to enjoy if we take care of them. Abuse and vandalism will only lead to more closures and restrictions on public lands in Arizona. Remember—historic things we preserve today will be here for our children and grand children and great grand children to enjoy in the future.

It is amazing the Coke Ovens have survived more than a hundred years and only now are in danger of being destroyed by inconsiderate visitors who are trespassing on private property.

If the Coke Ovens are to survive into the future they need to be continuously monitored somehow. The entire area is posted so there is no excuse for trespassing and willful destruction of this historical landmark on the National Registry.