The visit of a friend over the holiday weekend was an excuse to drive out of the valley fog and into a stunning late fall day as we made our way to the Empire Mine State Park, a mile east of Grass Valley. This is the site of California’s richest gold mine, in operation from the 1850’s through 1956. We lucked out: on Saturday they were holding a special open house. Park personnel in historical costume were greeting visitors and explaining things in both the “cottage,” where the mine owner lived with his family, and at the diggings themselves.
Gold was discovered in 1848, and by 1850, the rivers were panned out. There was plenty of gold, but larger operations were needed to extract it. The Empire Mine got off to a shaky start as it bought out numerous small claims, but faced serious difficulties in getting at veins of gold that laced the strata of quartz at deeper levels. Starting in 1879, William Bourn Jr., who gained a controlling interest, and his cousin, George Starr, the mine superintendent, created a very successful enterprise, largely because of the technical know how and labor of a large number of miners from Cornwall, England, a region where hardrock mining for tin and copper was a thousand years old. By 1890, Grass Valley was estimated to be 85% Cornish.
Bourn ran the mine from 1879 until 1929 when poor health forced him to sell it to Newmont Mining. In today’s terminology, these miners, photographed in 1905, are the 99%. According to one of the living history guides, the least prestigious job was that of a “mucker.” After a blast, they would load the ore carts and push them up the tracks to one of the main shafts where the rock would be hauled to the surface. The muckers could fill six or seven carts an hour, and each held a ton of ore. Muckers made $3 for a 10 hour shift.
In 1905, that wage beat the median income of twenty-two cents an hour. In addition, the mine prospered during the 1930’s – The Great Depression didn’t happen in Grass Valley. The safety record appears to be pretty clean too. Not only are hard rock mines the safest, but after the San Francisco earthquake in 1905, when miles of steel rails were twisted beyond use by railroads, Bourn bought them up to reinforce the shafts. In movies you see mines shored up with timber. At Empire, the shafts were braced with steel.
Still, with more than a bit of claustrophobia, I would have sought work in one of the craft shops above ground. Carpenters and metalworkers on site made and repaired almost everything used in the mining operations, including the ore carts and their wheels.
The mine was closed as a non-essential industry but the War Production Board at the start of WWII. It reopened in 1945 but the price of gold was fixed at its 1934 level of $35 an ounce. By 1956, each ounce cost $45 to produce, and the mine closed in January, 1957.
During its years of operation, the Empire mine produced 5.6 million ounces of gold – roughly five billion dollars at current prices. The state owns the surface structures and grounds, but Newmont mining retains mineral rights, and there’s still gold underground. If the price of rises high enough, mining operations could resume. The real value these days, however, is the historical interest and beauty of the place.
The heritage roses behind the cottage had all been cut back, but small plaques identified the roses and their dates. Most came from the 19th and early 20th century, but a few were earlier than that. When they are in bloom, you can buy cuttings.
I had been to the Empire Mine once before, in the 80’s one January day when the trees were bare, the pool was dry, and no one was no one around. I’d been wanting to return for most of this year, but something always came up until this past Saturday. I had no idea how much I would enjoy the site, and I highly recommend it if you are ever in California’s central valley, with a yen to explore the foothills and the gold country. http://www.empiremine.org/