Roche Harbor Lime Kilns
San Juan County
San Juan Island
Roche Harbor Road
Any visitor to Roche Harbor will be struck by the view of the two massive lime kilns that tower in striking contrast over the two small modern bocce ball courts at their base. The kilns are the ruins of what was in the early 1900s one of the great lime producing centers of the world. Exceptionally pure San Juan Island’s limestone was processed into manufacturing lime and shipped by sail and steam to points as far away as South America and Hawaii. Following the destruction by the 1906 earthquake and resulting fires; much of San Francisco was rebuilt using mortar and concrete produced from Roche Harbor lime.
Visually stunning, the kilns are built of layers of masonry brick work, native stone, and massive logs. Backed by an even higher cliff these great furnaces were loaded from the top, eventually spilling out the refined lime from metal hoppers which can still be seen inside the lower vaulted chambers. These great, continuous feed kilns which look so rustic now were "state of the art" in their time and replaced older far less efficient beehive style kilns that had to be fired and cleaned out in batches.
The process of lime production in the San Juan Islands in general and specifically here at Roche Harbor had a profound effect on the environment in ways that were as dramatic as they are hard to see today. The kilns had to be fired hot enough to drive off the water and carbon dioxide from the crushed lime and the fuel of choice was wood. Described by a worker that stoked the kilns as "hotter than the fires of hell;" the kilns maintained temperatures of nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, 24 hours a day, and for 11 months of each year. The wood fuel necessary to produce this kind of continuous burning resulted in vast sections of the forested islands being denuded. The resulting erosion was terrible. Soils were stripped from uplands, wetlands were filled, and once productive shellfish flats were buried. Yet today, the forests are returning, shellfish thrive in many of these same bays, and the uplands once again support vital plant communities.
Originally kilns were placed adjacent or ideally below the limestone deposits. Above you on higher ground are the raw open quarries that originally served these kilns and can be accessed by the Limestone Quarries Trail. In time, as local deposits were consumed, limestone from other sites and islands was barged here to be processed in these kilns. Walking below the cliff you’ll see remnants of powerhouse equipment that once operated here, electricity being another industrial innovation at the time. Next to this an almost sculpture like array of meticulously arched brick "modern" kilns efficiently processed the arriving limestone. Railroad carts and assembly-line like organization made this a bustling port.
For a mini-archeological experience; wander down to the small craft boat launch. When the tide is out you can walk the beach back toward the resort. Nearby the white remnants of partially processed lime waste and bricks from kiln rebuilding are being eroded from the shoreline fill. Looking among the bricks you can puzzle out the printing and by fun sleuthing determine where the bricks were made. "Clayburn, Made in Canada" came from just across the border near Sumas, Washington. For better examples, look no further than the road in front of the historic Hotel de Haro; it’s been paved with old kiln bricks.
The end of the local lime business came about due to lack of limestone, not firewood. At the time that the last kiln cooled and was abandoned over 4,000 cords of stacked seasoned wood stood waiting for use. Today the peaceful and festive setting of this resort community makes it hard to imagine the sights, sounds, and heat of what was essentially an industrial center.
In Roche Harbor; down the street from the historic Hotel de Haro
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San Juan Islands