Florence Coke Ovens
Text and Photos by Gordon Burhop
Florence was no lady. Rather, she was a community in south central Arizona Territory, home to a rough breed of frontiersmen who produced coke not the beverage or the illicit drug, but a charcoal product from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. She was a rough and tumble western town, with robberies and murders occurring on a regular basis. True to her heritage, the town is now the location for Arizona's state prison for hard cases.
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 so nearly inaccessible that the lack of disturbance is easily understood. 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.
Historically, in this area, the river was a shallow, slow moving stream subject to periodic flooding. Today, it is controlled by ranching impoundments and paralleled by a railroad track.
My friend Jim and I, plus several others, decided we would try to drive our stock four-wheel drive vehicles out to the ovens. Anticipating a rugged drive, we let various people know where and when we would be going. We used topographic maps to plan our route, which would cross only public land. We set out from Florence, at first passing scenic farm lands along the river. The road parallels the river and railroad tracks for about six miles. The river and tracks then continue eastward, and the trail turns northward, deteriorating as it passes through a beautiful box canyon. In places, the canyon became so narrow that we could touch the walls from either side of our vehicles. This is not a place to be caught in a flash flood, but we felt comfortable on that score because we had checked weather forecasts ahead of time.
All went well for four to five miles, until we confronted a steep lift which I call the "Stair Step," an outcrop approximately three feet high with only slightly eroded edges. It blocks most of the trail. I drove our vehicle to the extreme left side, the only place where we had a chance to ascend the Stair Step. By now, the day was half gone. Some in our party decided the Stair Step was too difficult. We hadn't made enough progress. They chose not to proceed. Not wishing to split the party, I turned around, and we descended the Stair Step. We all returned home, but Jim and I resolved to come up with a new plan.
A week later, the two of us returned to the river with a canoe. We planned to paddle upstream for three miles and to land right at the coke ovens. As before, we had notified people what we were doing. We launched next to the carcass of a dead cow, a banquet table set for a pair of vultures. Two hours of furious paddling ensued. We traveled a half mile. We nearly capsized. Several times. Two fishermen snickered at us. By now we had a good grasp of the terrain, so we decided to hike the rest of the way, about three miles, by following the railroad track, which passed through a quarter-mile-long tunnel filled with bats, and then crossed an old cantilever steel bridge.
The scenery was wonderful, but we had had to ascend the river on the side across from the ovens. No problem, we said. We'll just wade across. Jim reasoned that a narrower, placid area was best. I thought a wider, rippled area was best. We separated, crossed at our respective choices and reunited on the other side. I arrived with wet sneakers. He arrived wet to the waist. I didn’t snicker. Well, not much. We forged on and came to the ovens in early afternoon and ate lunch.
No adventure goes perfectly. This one would prove to be no exception. We decided to take a shortcut for our return, "stringing the bow" across a large sweeping bend in the river. That turned out to be a mistake. The native mesquite trees had all been cut to make coke, and that wickedly aggressive invasive shrub, the salt cedar, or tamarisk, had taken over, creating a river bottom jungle. We had to bushwhack through the tamarisk for more than half mile, using a compass for navigation to get to the river and railroad tracks again. Moreover, I had underestimated the amount of water we would need. We ran dry. Luckily, we found a spigoted, sealed stock tank full of water. We filled our canteens, using purification tablets to treat the water.
The rest of the walk back, paralleling the tracks, was uneventful and relaxing. We had succeeded in reaching the ovens, even though our route may have been unorthodox. We declared the trip a wonderful experience.
We decided to try again the next weekend to drive to the ovens. Again, being cautious, we informed various people what we planned. We arrived with two vehicles at the Stair Step. This time we followed the left track pioneered earlier. We made it through, but the next four miles were the most challenging four-wheeling I have ever endured. Still it brought breath-taking scenery, and we had lunch again at the ovens.
While we relaxed, some fellows drove up in a radical, tricked-up Bronco II. They wanted to know if they could return by our route. Their way had been too rough. We told them, no, that they had to return the same way they came. We laughed, but Jim and I are going to try their way the next time we visit the ovens.
Note: The coke ovens are on private property and should not be visited without permission from the owner.
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