In Grass Valley, the Empire Mine was California's biggest, most productive operation

By Janet Fullwood
Bee Travel Editor
(Published April 26, 1998)

Empire Mine
Green lawns and towering Douglas firs frame a clubhouse built at the turn of the century for executives at Empire Mine in Grass Valley.

Bee photo/Dick Tracy
GRASS VALLEY -- For more than a century, from 1850 to 1956, the grumblings and rumblings of the stamp mill could be heard for miles around Grass Valley. Twenty-four hours a day, huge banks of machines sent iron rods crashing into chunks of ore blasted from deep inside the Earth. The noise was a constant. Living near the Empire Mine was like living near an interstate highway: You got used to it, or you went nuts.

"People only noticed when it stopped," says Donna Jones, interpretive ranger at Empire Mine State Historic Park. "And one of the few times it stopped was when Maude Bourn married. They turned it off for three days."

Maude Bourn was the daughter of William Bowers Bourn Jr., who took over the mine from his father in 1887 and went on to become a big name in California, leaving, among his many legacies, the 43-room Filoli mansion in Woodside and the Greystone Winery (now headquarters for the Culinary Institute of America) in St. Helena.

The mine that made his fortune is now a state park. It attempts, through tours and restorations, to draw visitors into the bygone world of the baron Bourn and the legions of laborers who earned a living in the tunnels and shafts that turned the hills around Grass Valley into a bedrock version of Swiss cheese.

Empire Mine was one of the first -- and eventually the largest and most productive -- hard-rock mining operations in California, having its start with the discovery, in 1850, of flecks of gold in an outcropping of quartz where the park's main parking lot is now. Some 5.8 million ounces were eventually extracted from the vein.

A park visit begins at the museum, which includes photos and artifacts from throughout the mine's working history, as well as a dramatically lit safe where flashy samples of gold taken from various mines around the world are displayed. But the star attraction here is a three-dimensional model of the underground workings of the mine complex. What resembles a giant Tinkertoy construction was actually an invaluable tool for mapping the 500 miles of shafts and stopes spread out a mile deep and 21/2 miles wide under the surface of the ground.

"It was built in secret in 1938, right here in this room," Jones says of the model. "The windows were painted out, the door was kept locked -- only the engineers and top officials knew of its existence. They didn't want the miners to know."

As the model illustrates, the sheer size and scope of the Empire Mine was mind-boggling. Everything below about 150 feet is flooded now. But out in "the yard" behind the museum, visitors can peer down the damp, dimly lit shaft where miners went to work each day.

The usual method of entering the mine was aboard a cable-operated "man skip," which resembled a giant toboggan on tracks. Twenty men at a time would pile on for the rip-roaring, 600-feet-per-minute ride into the bowels of the Earth.

"They always put the new men in front so that, if they lost their breakfast, it wouldn't affect anyone else," Jones says dryly.

Visitors of today aren't allowed into the mine. But in the works are plans to bore a new tunnel and intersect the main shaft about 100 feet below the surface. Electric trains would carry visitors underground.

The project, still in the fund-raising phase, is geared to coincide with the state's three-year-long Gold Discovery to Statehood Sesquicentennial, which kicked off in January.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Empire Mine State Historic Park is at 10791 E. Empire St. in Grass Valley. To get there from Sacramento, take Interstate 80 to Auburn, go north on Highway 49 to Grass Valley, exit on East Empire Street and follow the signs.

Park hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in May, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in summer. Admission is $3 for adults, $1 for children 6-12, and $1 for dogs, which must be leashed. Video presentations are offered on the half-hour. Guided tours of the yards and the cottage are scheduled several times daily. Beginning May 1 and continuing through summer, docents representing characters from history give living history presentations. Picnic facilities are available; camping is not permitted. For more park information, call (530) 273-8522.

"With the new tunnel, visitors can finally get underground. We'll be able to see some of the earliest drifts and stopes, as well as some of the beautiful rock walls the Cornish built with waste rock," Jones says.

If the word "Cornish" keeps coming up a lot during Empire Mine tours, it's because for decades the majority of mine workers were recruited from Cornwall, England.

"In terms of ethnic diversity -- well, they didn't have any," Jones says. "Their idea of diversity was Irish vs. Cornish. There was always a lot of rivalry between the Irish, who worked at the North Star Mine, and the Cornish here."

Besides the mine shaft, park visitors can tour the mining engineer's office, where maps and tools of the trade are on display, and peer into a number of restored buildings and workshops.

Across a park road lies the manicured world where Bourn sited his Empire Cottage, built in 1897. It's a Tudor-style stone house with an arts-and-crafts interior. Tours visit the kitchen, where costumed docents often are on hand to explain how the household was run, and pass through the redwood-paneled living room, dining room and downstairs bedroom. Outside, grassy lawns, towering firs, splashing fountains and a reflecting pool stand in sharp contrast to the harsh conditions endured by those who labored thousands of feet below.

Adding color to the scene are the well-tended gardens adjacent to the house.

"The gardeners make sure the beds are full of color from spring well into fall," reassures Jones.

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