The West Virginia. Cyclopedia


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Drawing showing typical Bee Hive coke oven design
Coke block construction drawing
Elevation drawings of a typical bank of coke ovens
Jeffrey electric coke larry car, used to fill coke ovens

Coke is carbonized coal, a product produced by baking coal in a heated oven. By using a process that allows the impurities in the coal to be burned off, while not allowing the carbon content of the coal to burn, the coal is turned into coke. The impurities burned off were actually the volatile matter contained in the coal, such as tars, oils and gases. When burned, coke generated an intense amount of heat but produced very little smoke, qualities that made it an ideal fuel for use in producing iron and steal. During the 1880's, coke began to replace charcoal in the making of steel at foundries in the United States. By the end of World War I, eight-eight percent of the nation's iron and steel was produced by using a process utilizing coke. At a typical foundry of the era, coke and iron ore would be mixed together, and then burned in a furnace. As the coke burned, it would remove the oxygen from the iron ore, converting it to metal.

The production of coke required access to an abundant supply of clean water. According to the book, Surface Arrangements at Bituminous Mines, published in 1907, "a beehive oven will require from 500 to 800 gallons of water per oven; hence, a 100-oven plant making 48-hour coke requires from 25,000 to 40,000 gallons per day, without making any allowance for leakage."

Coke Ovens

Practically all of West Virginia's early coke plants used "Bee Hive" (or beehive) coke ovens, so named because the interior of the oven was dome-shaped, similar to the shape of a beehive. Because the coal of the New River Coal Field made excellent coke, a large number of the area's coal operations built coke ovens near their coal plants. By 1906, more than 2,300 coke ovens were in operation in the mining camps of the New River Coal Field, of which 540 were located at mines along the Loup Creek Branch of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway (C&O). By the 1920's, the demand for coke slowed due to the expensive of the process, and the production of coke by the iron manufactures near their plants. Instead of using Bee Hive coke ovens, a more efficient design was employed which allow gases and valuable chemicals to be recovered during the process of turning coal into coke. By 1942, production of coke in Fayette County, once the top producing counties in the state, had fallen to levels below what it had produced in 1890.

Soldenhoff's Improved Coppee Coke Ovens at Hawks Nest

In 1881, 80 experimental coke ovens, using "Soldenhoff's Improved Coppee" design, were built at Hawks Nest, in the New River Gorge. Richard de Soldenhoff, a Belgian, contracted to construct these ovens, under his personal supervision. He believed that 95 per cent of the carbon in the coal used would be saved and that each oven will yield twice as much coke as a beehive oven, yet its construction cost would be only about 35 per cent more. The Coppee cokie ovens built at Hawks Nest were made of Scioto Star fire-brick.

The Minerals Yearbook, published by the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1885, provided the following information about the Soldenhoff oven at Hawks Nest:

"Beehive ovens of the ordinary pattern are the only ones used except at Hawk's Nest, where a block of eighty Soldenhof ovens has been built. They are a modification of the Belgian oven, designed to quicken the coking process by the combustion of gas in the cellular walls and underlying flues of the ovens. The coke is discharged by a steam ram at the conclusion of the process, and is quenched by the use of water on the yard instead of in the oven.

The location of the Hawk's Nest ovens was a very expensive one, and the firebrick used in their construction proved inferior. The many repairs required on starting the ovens were a great injury to the character of the coke in a process requiring regular work, and as these repairs have been continued up to the present, it is impossible to make a fair comparison between the two systems.

The Soldenhoff ovens give a coke with shorter fiber and generally less luster than the beehive ovens. They are more compact and require less labor, but their first cost is very heavy, and they require more repairs. They have not yet proved to possess any advantage over the beehive ovens."