Archaeological dig at Cherry Valley Coke Ovens

The roots of a tree wind and twist down like Medusa's hair, draping along both sides of a coke oven in Leetonia, Ohio.A site that has something in common with the Eiffel Tower, the Liberty Bell, and the Statue of Liberty might surely pique your interest, don’t you think?

A few days ago, I stumbled across this story about an archaeological dig taking place at a location I photographed back in 2007—the Cherry Valley Coke Ovens in Leetonia, Ohio.

Unfortunately, we didn’t stay at the ovens long, as it was cold—and we were only in the area looking at a grand old Victorian home we were interested in buying (despite the allure of its beauty that included a fireplace surround made of tiles with each featuring a different play of Shakespeare’s, was a clear money pit we simply didn’t have the resources to restore at the time). We’ve never made it back, either, much as I would like to return. Now, of course, having read about plans for the site’s restoration, I’m very much interested in returning!

At any rate, back to the archaeology. Leetonia has long desired to turn the site of the ovens into a more tourist-friendly park which will include a museum where the little pieces of Leetonia’s past—built around these ovens and the blast furnaces which used to be here—can be shared with visitors. Thus far, the students from Youngstown State University have discovered a pulley, china, medicine bottles, and part of a plow. The ovens were a, if not the, major business in town for many years, and all sorts of tradesmen from farmers to (no doubt) cure-all peddlers showed up to sell to the mill’s employees; it will be interesting to see what these young archaeologists dig up!

At the same time, the village has finalized the restoration plan, which will allow Leetonia to begin looking for funding to restore the ovens, which were placed onto the National Historic Register in 1993 and received an Ohio Historical Marker in 1999.This is thanks in part to the assistance of Marin Branco, earning her master’s in landscape architecture at the State University of New York. Suiting the village’s desire for this to be a park as well as a historical site, Branco’s plan will fully restore some ovens while partially restoring others while also adding native plants through which walking trails will meander. Having a plan on paper will make it easier for Leetonia to obtain restoration funding.Leetonia Coke Ovens

The 200 beehive-style ovens were likely built around 1866 in order to burn coal in order to create coke, a hot-burning, smokeless fuel that was then used to feed everything from stoves to blast furnaces; no doubt some of the coke ended up in Pittsburgh’s iron furnaces. Trains would run between the ovens in dry canals (now filled with water thanks to sediment-plugged drains), with the loading doors at the same level as the oven entrances, and the coke would be on its way.

Interestingly, the Park Commission learned (thanks to a Ohio historical society) that draining the water from the canals could cause the canal walls to collapse by exposing them to the elements; thus, the water will remain, and the canals will be stocked with native game fish, if you can believe that! When the restoration is complete, it will be interesting to see how Branco’s plan combines both the history of the ovens and the more naturalized state she is going for.

It’s also rather amazing to think of archaeological work going on at a site that’s so new, really—at least one that isn’t the site of a battle or major event of some sort.

When my husband and I visited the coke ovens back in ’07, it was exceedingly quiet and a little bit creepy. The fences were unmended, some of the ovens appeared a bit shaky, and the walkways beside the canals (which I very much wanted to visit more closely) were an odd combination of icy mud. It made us sad to see this little piece of history—the only known remaining site of bee-hive style coke ovens left in the world—so neglected and run-down, seemingly abandoned other than a tiny parking lot. Hearing about all of the goings-on and planned changes for the Cherry Valley Ovens brought a smile to my face, knowing that they’re at least going to be cared for. And maybe next time I’m back, there won’t be any worries about having my shoes sucked into the mud and slipping into an icy canal! 😉

More about the Cherry Valley Coke Ovens:

Coke Ovens Arboretum 

Cherry Valley Coke Ovens Restoration

4 thoughts on “Archaeological dig at Cherry Valley Coke Ovens

  1. Really interesting post Jen. I have always been fascinated by archeology. Discovering your past by digging it up. I’ve seen programs about digs in Ciaro, they can deliniate the centuries within a cross section of earth and tell what the weather was doing then, amazing. I hope they find success in the restoration of this heritage site.

  2. Jen, I believe it was the old Gibson house that you were looking at while in our small town of Leetonia, it has since been restored by Barbara Hendricks, all done to the original colors and wallpaper of that era. It is a fabulous house, it has since been sold and is now a bed and breakfast. My brother in law grew up in that hous., When I was a small girl I remember asking my Dad if we could buy it and paint it, he laughed and said like you it was a money pit and it would take soo much paint on that old wood…. I enjoyed your article, it hits home growing up and still residing in our tiny little town. Thanks Patty Altomare

    • Hi Patty, thanks for filling in some new information for us! Was it a big pink house? It was when we looked at it, and it was ever so lovely and grand. I’m glad to hear it has been restored…maybe we’ll have to stay and visit again soon!

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