SE Colorado, Part 2 - Coke Ovens of Cokedale, Colorado
I had never seen a coke oven before, and as we came around the bend into Cokedale on Colorado County Road 12, my first thought was of Roman ruins.
Working in the coal mines was hard work. Very hard. But some were lucky enough to work above ground.
Coke ovens were used at extremely high temperatures to turn coal into 'coke', ( a very hard form of coal with the impurities removed), which is among other things, used to make steel. Coke heats at extremely high temperatures, to about 2800 degrees, and this is what gives strength and flexibility to the steel used for so many purposes. A coke oven is made up of a heating chamber, coking chamber, and a regenerative chamber. After the 16-20 hour process, brick on both ends (the doors) are removed, and the coke is pushed out into waiting railroad cars.
Imagine for a moment what it was like when the coke ovens were fired up. As the coal fills up the oven, the heat and pressure ignite, and a sulphuric smelling smoke leaves through the top of the oven. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, smoke from 350 ovens could envelope the whole town with a sulphurous stench.
In the 18th century in England, a coke-fired blast furnace was created that could produce 'cast iron'. This discovery was one of the factors that lead us into the Industrial Revolution.
Eight miles outside of Trinidad, Colorado, in Las Animas County, sits the small village of Cokedale, once a coal mining camp, where workers and their families lived in Company owned homes. At it's peak, Cokedale had 1500 residents and produced 1500 tons of coal, and 800 tons of coke a day. Built in 1906 by the American Smelting and Refining Company, it is the most "intact coal camp" in the state, and 350 coke ovens were in use there until the camp was closed down in 1946. Unlike other mines, the miners of Cokedale enjoyed good relations with mine management and never experienced the violence of other camps.
At the time the mine closed, the Company offered the miners that wanted to stay, the ability to purchase their homes for $100 per room, and $50 for the lot.
Today, a very controversial coal-bed methane project is underway a few miles up the road in Boncarbo.
Cokedale, with it's coke ovens and surviving buildings of the period, was placed on the National Historic Register in 1984. It's a very small community, (the population in 2008 was 134) - no stores, no public restrooms.