Recently I saw a photograph of these old coke ovens located in Helena. I had never heard their story. So after searching the internet and writing a few people I found a historical group in Helena. They were nice enough to invite me to visit one of their meetings. Afterwards, we took a little field trip and visited the ovens. I certainly enjoyed meeting each one and appreciate their hospitality.
The Cahaba Coal Field was developed during the American Civil War to aid the Confederate war efforts. Billy Gould’s mine begun in 1863, and was one of several mines in the area. The mine was destroyed by General Wilson and his Raiders from Iowa in 1865. After the war the following year, the Cahaba Coal Company returned the mine back into operation. The Cahaba Coal Company was the largest operator of coal mines in the area during the Reconstruction period. In the mid 1870’s the ovens at this location were built. Today these twelve coke ovens remaining are some of the oldest in the state.
Coke is similar to charcoal except it is made from coal instead of wood. Therefore, it is lighter and will burn better than coal. The process is said to have begun in ancient China during the 4th century, and later in England in late 1500’s. The first use of coke in an iron furnace in America, occurred around 1817 in western Pennsylvania.
In the 1920’s the population in Helena declined as mines closed and many residents moved in search of jobs. The Great Depression dealt Helena another blow. Then in 1933 a tornado which killed 14, injured 150, and destroyed 110 homes devastated Helena. However, those who stayed rebuilt their homes and businesses. Missing stones in parts of Old Town can still be seen today that were taken to by some from these ovens to rebuild the buildings.
There was a second, much larger oven located in Helena, in an area known as Hillsboro. It is said that there were around an hundred ovens at this location. Later when the bridge across the Cahaba was constructed for Hwy 52, stones were removed from Hillsboro to build the piers that currently support the bridge.