Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Ask Gen. Palmer: That's really an oven on hillside

By Dave Philipps Updated: October 24, 2013 at 1:55 pm

Editor's Note: This column about local history appears in Sunday's print editions of The Gazette, on the "Who We Are" page. Send questions to dave.philipps@gazette.com; 636-0238.

Question: There is a domed structure that looks like an old outdoor oven on a hillside west of the Rockrimmon exit of I-25. What is it?

Answer: That dome is a beehive coke oven left over from the infernal Pikeview Mine, which caused me some distress in my later years.

This area was once all open country. The beauty of the plains running up against the grand mountains was why I settled here. Who could live in this constant splendor without being elevated into a lofty plane of thought and purpose?

That was in 1870, when this region was still very young. Colorado Springs grew modestly during the next 20 years, as settlers looking for health and temperance found it an attractive and civilized place.

Then gold was discovered on the western side of Pikes Peak and my dear little colony took on some of the aspects of those rough and tumble boom towns in the West from which I had consciously tried to keep our city.

To my regret, mills began popping up on the south side of Colorado City and along Bear Creek, where armies of workers reduced ore with considerable amounts of chlorine and arsenic and cyanide. It was most unsightly and odorous.

The Pikeview Mine, which stood where now I understand there is some sort of professional rodeo organization offices, powered these mills. Men dug coal from nearby seams, some going as deep as 500 feet as they spread east toward Austin Bluffs.

Here is where the coke oven you asked about comes in. Coke is coal that has had every impurity burned away leaving only the pure carbon. The pure fuel is needed for certain industrial purposes.

Workers would heap raw coal in the beehive oven and ignite it. The pile, starved of oxygen, glowed for two or three days in the oven as sulphur and other impurities burned away. Unfortunately, the making of coke belched out considerable billows of sulphurous smoke that stunk of rotten eggs and killed much of the vegetation in the immediate area. My home, Glen Eyrie, was only a few miles to the west and the acrid smell reached us when the wind was right. A dreadful nuisance.

Some of you may rightly point out that I was an industrialist, and many of my endeavors relied on coke. In fact, I owned the largest coal company in Colorado for some time and oversaw the building of dozens of coke ovens. Quite true, but that sort of thing was near industrial towns like Durango or Aspen. It had no place in a civilized place like Colorado Springs.

The mine continued to operate until 1957, and produced almost 9 million tons of coal. Besides the coke oven, there is still a warren of tunnels, which occasionally collapse, creating sinkholes in the neighborhood.

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