Researchers unravel mystery behind charcoal ovens
TRUCKEE — Archaeologist Susan Lindstrom examined a map marking almost 150 charcoal ovens in one portion of the Truckee basin.
“My hunch is, with all those bugs crawling across the map, that they brought the ovens to the wood,” she said, referring to the scattered location of the ovens that she believes were built and manned by Truckee’s Chinese residents.
Among the trees and brush, scattered across the land more commonly known as the Old Greenwood site owned by developers East West Partners, Lindstrom, along with numerous researchers, has been examining and gathering information from old logs that once formed the rectangular ovens.
She believes that this site may hold the highest density of charcoal ovens in the United States.
Measuring 75-feet-long and 30-feet-wide, these ovens may reveal portions of local and United States history that have been hiding underground for the last century, according to archaeologists and historians.
The structure of the oven seems relatively simple, but the actual burning and manufacture of the charcoal was a skilled technology, Lindstrom said.
The base of the oven — believed to have been constructed from green logs — created a bed for the slash, or leftover wood from lumbering that would become the charcoal.
The bed acted as a draft mechanism that allowed air to flow under the burning branches and helped to control the burn. Also, by using fresh wood, the bed would not burn with the slash, Lindstrom said.
Layers of green pine boughs, pine needles, bark and dirt, possibly 6-inches thick, were used as a cover once all the wood had been piled up.
“They were always built on a slight angle to promote the draft and a controlled burn,” Lindstrom said.
The burn itself could last from one to two weeks. Lindstrom estimates it took laborers up to one month to construct an oven and then produce the charcoal.
“They had to really control the temperature and the flame,” she said. “If it burnt too hot, they would get ash. If it burnt too cool, they would just get this reddened wood.”
Lindstrom and her colleagues found modified kerosene cans in the shape of a cylinder that were probably used to create holes on the sides of the ovens and promote air flow.
Condensation and toxic liquids from the burn would run off into a trench built along the perimeter of the oven.
So far information regarding the ovens remains speculation, and must be supported with archival evidence, as well as facts such as the age of the log samples taken from the site.
Soon Lindstrom will begin intensive archival research — examining historical newspapers and assessor records from the mid-19th century — that may help to answer some of the questions she and other researchers have begun to ask since the recent discovery of the industry in Truckee.
Charcoal ovens, as well as charcoal production, are not new. Similar ovens have been discovered all over the world, including Europe, the Pacific Islands and Asia, as well as North America, but none have been as extensively studied and excavated as the ones Lindstrom has been studying.
Charcoal ovens such as these have often been overlooked by researchers, Lindstrom said.
An interest in the recent past is something relatively new for archaeologists, who once focused primarily on prehistoric sites.
Donald Hardesty, professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada said that it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that archaeologists began to look closely at archaeological evidence of the recent past.
“By that time we were just beginning to get a sense of the importance of the archaeological evidence of the overseas Chinese,” he said.
Twenty years ago, Hardesty excavated the land now called planned community 2, and identified several charcoal ovens, but did not excavate them extensively.
“I think that no one had a good sense — especially in the archaeological community — of the significance of those charcoal oven sites,” Hardesty said.
“We’re literally breaking new ground here in Truckee,” Lindstrom said.
Archaeologist and historian Ron Reno, who has extensively researched charcoal ovens all over the world, particularly in the United States, said these ovens closely resemble European ovens.
Charcoal ovens found in China tend to be semi-subterranean, he said.
“If the Chinese were doing the burning in Truckee, they were clearly under orders from someone else and not using techniques from China,” Reno said.
Lindstrom believes that the firm of Sisson, Wallace and Crocker, who organized the construction of the transcontinental railroad, funneled Chinese labor into the local lumber industry after the railroad’s completion.
The charcoal was then transported to a smelter that may have been located in downtown Truckee and that was in operation for less than 10 years, circa 1870.
“In this whole string of smelters, this one in Truckee … was the westernmost of smelters in a tri-state system,” she said. Because of the rich logging resources in the Truckee basin — combined with the railroad, water resources and a large labor base — Lindstrom believes that Truckee was an ideal spot for charcoal production.
Lindstrom has known about the ovens since the late 1980s, but has only been able to excavate the site south of Interstate 80 and east of Highway 89 recently because of funds available for the project.
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