Colorado History – Colorado’s Energy Resources: The History of Coke Ovens

Horse drawn wagons haul the coke from the ovens. Photos courtesy of Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

By Linda Wommack

Colorado is rich in natural resources. From gold and silver that helped bring the state into the Union in 1876, to the many rivers that begin high on the Continental Divide, providing water to Arizona and Nevada in the west, and Nebraska and Kansas to the east, our state has shared the abundance of energy resources for thousands of years.

Following the Civil War in 1865, the federal government, under Manifest Destiny, encouraged settlement of the West. The surveys of famed geographer Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden in 1873 suggested the Crystal Valley on the Western Slope of Colorado Territory, might well be rich in coal. Indeed, for Hayden’s prediction proved to be true. Coal had been discovered in rich quantities not only in the Crystal Valley, but also in various places across the state.

In 1882, the White Breast Coal Company sent John C. Osgood west to investigate the state’s coal resources. Not only did Osgood investigate nearly every existing coal camp in the state, his business knowledge and keen foresight would change the economy in the state forever.

Osgood invested heavily, acquiring rich deposits of coal all across the state, as well as extensive coal bands in the western plateau region, including along the Crystal River. In 1884 he formed his own coal company, the Colorado Fuel Company, with 700 acres of coal land. Over a four-year period, Osgood bought land with evident coal deposits, as well as existing claims, ideal for coking.

Coke is a nearly solid remnant of combusted carbonaceous coal with quantities of ash and sulfur. In the 19th century, coke was used as fuel or as a reducing agent in blast furnaces used in the smelting of iron ore. Coke is one of the three primary components for producing iron, which in turn is used to make steel. Osgood brought in a team of building contractors from Denver to build the coke ovens necessary to his operation.

Coke ovens were designed as airtight
ovens, as the absence of oxygen was vital to yielding the best quality of the coke byproduct. The typical coke oven was a 3x3x3 brick structure that was hollow in the middle for the conversion process. The coal would be loaded into the heated oven from the top, the oven sealed and the coking process would begin. The temperature for heating the bituminous coal ranged from 1,000 to 2,000 degrees, reducing the coal to the coke byproduct.

Coke ovens owned by the powerful Colorado Fuel & Iron Company

Converting coal into coke was a slow process, therefore, Osgood had several ovens built, strategically situated between tiles of heating walls. Often referred to as “beehives,” this arrangement increased the efficiency of the coke production and the efficiency of the coke oven.

By 1888, Osgood controlled over five thousand acres of land rich with coal. With the acquired assets, Osgood’s company had more than $5 million in capital. The business did so well under Osgood’s executive leadership that in 1892, Osgood bought out his competition, the Pueblo based Colorado Coal and Iron Company, which came to be known as the powerful Colorado Fuel & Iron Company. In time, Osgood’s company would extend south to New Mexico and north into Wyoming.

While the company expanded their enterprise at great rapidity and profit, Osgood returned his focus on the Coal Basin area, and in a big way. First, he expanded the coke ovens in the area to 200, as the new coal discoveries in the surrounding mountains were ideal for refining into coke. Then he hired a construction team to build homes for the coal miners, the beginning of today’s historic town of Redstone. Transportation to the isolated area was achieved with the construction of the Crystal River Railroad, completed in 1899. The narrow gauge rail line ran 12 miles to connect with the main line of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad at Carbondale, where the coke would be farther transported to the iron mills at the plant in Pueblo.  At the peak of ore production, the coke ovens in this area were producing almost 6 million tons a year and by 1902, the ovens were producing almost 6.7 million tons of coke annually. It was the largest operation at the time in the state.

Colorado was experiencing an energy bonanza with natural resources. On the plains of southern Colorado, not far from the New Mexico border, a significant coal discovery in 1905 brought the American Smelting and Refining Company to the area. Two mines in the area were developed and within one year, 350 coke ovens were in operation just south of town. The company established the town of Cokedale, named for the coke ovens, in 1906. By 1909, there were more than 1,000 people living in the town. Cokedale experienced great prosperity, providing coal throughout the western United States, as well as being a major contributor during World War II. Following the war, the demand for coke dwindled and the mines closed. But the coke ovens remain to this day.

Cokedale is perhaps the finest example of an intact coal camp in Colorado. The small community has again experienced resurgence due to natural resources. A coal-bed methane project has been progressing slow but surely for the past few years, bringing new prosperity to the area in Las Animas County.

Today, the coke ovens in both Las Animas County and the area around Redstone are protected by the state’s Historic Preservation program. The entire town of Cokedale, as well as the remaining coke ovens, was placed on the National Historic Register in 1984.

In February 1990, the historic community of Redstone was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the remaining 90 coke ovens built in 1899. The coke ovens are side-by-side in a 600-foot-long area. The coke ovens in this historic district are very rare in the western United States.

The Redstone Coke Oven Historic District is located at the intersection of Colorado Highway 133 and Chair Mountain Stables Road in Pitkin County.

While the history of the coke ovens lasted a mere 10 years, the history of Colorado’s vast natural resources is far from past history.

Worker at the coke ovens shows the soot and grime of their job.

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