Journey into California Gold Rush History
Empire Mine SHP
Grass Valley, CA

One of the longest running gold mines of the Gold Rush Era, Empire Mine operated for over a century from 1850 to 1956 and is said to still contain millions of dollars of gold.  And it was the largest hard rock mining operation in the state pulling more gold out of the ground than any other mine of the Gold Rush era.

If you tool around the foothill area, you will invariably pass by Empire Mine located in Grass Valley.  Ride up the narrow road east from Highway 49 and pull the bike into the gravel parking lot.

Much like nearby Malakoff Diggins, the gold was discovered by accident.  George Roberts was a lumberman and the story goes while surveying some trees in the area, he happened to glance at his boots and noticed tiny gold flakes on them.

Empire Mine's administrative building

The gold rush had been on a full year already.  Yet the miners primary source of acquiring the gold was to pan the gold right out of streams and river beds.  The gold George Roberts found though was imbedding in quartz..  The only way to get at it was dig it up and crush the rock.  But this was very difficult for the time and there were much better, and easier, diggins elsewhere.  

George sold his rights to the land for a mere $350 in 1851.  Little did he know he was quite literally standing on a gold mine.  George couldn't have known that in a mere 13 years, by 1864, the mine would already have produced one million dollars worth of gold.

In 1850, Grass Valley was populated by a tiny handful of people.  By 1851, it swarmed with over 20,000 residents.  The hilltop of present-day Empire Mine pulsated with gold seekers looking for easy pickins.  But it wasn't so easy- a new and efficient method of extracting the gold from the quartz was in dire need.

The method was Hard Rock Mining, and it befuddled Argonauts who realized this was tremendous hard work.  Especially with the tools and knowledge of the day.  First you must dig a hole into solid rock.  Then the rock you dig up, you have to crush it.  Then somehow extract the gold from the crushed rock.

They were rescued with the arrival of Cornish immigrants from the Cornish Peninsula of southwest England.  For the past 1000 years, they pulled tin and copper from their native soil.  They brought with them their knowledge of mining, their work ethic, and their customs.  The Empire Mine labor force soon was made up of 90% Cornish miners. 

As the mining progressed to a feverish pace, the depth of the mine soon fell below the water table. The solution was the Cornish plunging pump capable of pulling 18,000 gallons of water out of the mine per hour. After 40 years of use, Cornish pumps were finally replaced with electrical hydraulic equipment around 1900.

Despite the efficient removal of water from the mine, timbers used to hold fast the ceiling of the mine would rot in the damp mine in turn producing methane- a colorless, odorless gas that killed when breathed.

While birds such as canaries were carried into the mine to warn of an increase in methane gas, an unusual relationship also developed with rodents. Miners were known to feed the rats that lived inside the depths of the mine.  Much like the canaries carried into Appalachian Mines, a dead rat also gave quick warning to the buildup of the deadly methane gas.

Cornish Miners brought with them the pasty, a meat & potato pie, which is readily available in nearby Grass Valley restaurants.  Each day, they carried with them their metal lunch tin down into the mine.  The lunch pail had several levels within it.  Using a candle, they'd heat the bottom of the tin, in turn heating the pasty.  

The hard rock Cornish miners worked a life of hard work in a dangerous occupation. During peak years in the life of the mine, they worked six days a week and ten-hour days in the underground tunnels.

Mules were also used within the depths of the mine.  At one year old, they were taken down into the maze of tunnels and spent the rest of their life there.  They soon became an essential part of the work.  They had their own clean stalls, fresh food and water.  They were also very temperamental.  Miners kept handfuls of oats, a shot of whiskey, and the mule's favorite- a snuff of tobacco.   A miner trying to walk past a mule might be stopped in his tracks by the mule bloating its stomach in the narrow passage.  A little payoff was all that was required for passage.  

If a miner might try to fool the mule into pulling 7 tons instead of 8 tons of ore- the mule knew.  Until the extra car was unhitched and the mule was compensated with a quid of tobacco- the mule wouldn't budge.  After that, the mule would diligently pull the 7 cars with all its might.

The men responsible for the immense success of the mine were the owner William Bourn, Jr. and his mine superintendent George Starr.  Bourn inherited the mine at age 21 in 1877 from his millionaire father.  Starr also started early but far from the silver spoon.

At age 16, he began working in the mine as a mucker- the dirtiest and most difficult job in the mine of cleaning up the debris from the tunnels and shafts.

Within 11 years at 28 years old- he became the mine superintendent.  Starr would be credited with an endless stream of innovations.  Miners called him a "Mining Genius" and the "Shining Starr of the Empire". Geologists and engineers from around the world ventured to view the latest technologies being used at the Empire. 

Gunpowder blasting for example dated as far back as 1627 when it was used in Saxony, England. When it was first employed in the Empire Mine to reach the rich veins of gold, a process of double-jacking was used. A powder hole was created by two miners working in tandem. One swung a large hammer against a heavy drill bit held in place against the rock wall by the 2nd man. In turn a hole was created that could be packed with gunpowder

With the introduction of dynamite into the Empire Mine in the 1870's, this evolved the mining methods to single jacking. This change allowed for only one miner being required to hammer a series of small holes into the rock face to be packed with dynamite, then exploded to release the rock..

Drilling holes into the rock walls by single jacking was common prior to 1890
Single Jacking

By 1890, single jacking was replaced with compressed-air powered drills to carve holes into the walls of rock. Later, these evolved to a improved design that sprayed water onto the drill bit to keep down clouds of dust created by earlier designs.

Even common things such as mine cars were improved to make the mine more efficient. Standard mine cars were modified to have their own bucket system. Muckers scooped the ore into buckets that rested on the ground. Once full, the buckets cantelevered the ore into the mine car rather than having to shovel the ore up into the car allowing miners relief of the backbreaking work.

The mine was pushed further and further soon extending 11,000 feet on the incline and a mile below the surface in a maze of 367 miles of tunnels.

Stamp Mill

The gold that was mined was not easy to get to as it was embedded in quartz rock. In order to extract the gold, the gold ore was brought to the surface, then crushed in a massive stamping mill.

The Empire Mine's stamp mill was soon one the largest in all of California. Much like the stamp press pictured here, as many as eighty stamps were utilized at one time to keep up with production. Once the ore was crushed into a powder, the fine grit was washed onto copper tables coated with mercury, also known at the time as quicksilver.

Quicksilver was also a rock ore that was mined in places like New Iridia along Panoche Rd which supplied great quanities of mercury to help fuel this chapter in Gold Rush history.

Since gold adheres to mercury, this combination called an amalgam was then heated in a retort room to separate the two elements. The end result was pure gold, and lots of it.

As the mine grew larger, the tunnels extended to over 367 Miles of labyrinthian pursuit of the viens of gold. This maze of tunnels was kept track of by hand in a place called the Secret Room.  A model of the mine the size of an entire room was made to scale of what lay below the surface.  The windows were blacked out thus earning the room its title.  Few people even knew the room existed while the mine was in operation.  Today the immense model is a intensely fascinating relic left behind in the present day museum.

The mining came to a close in 1956 when the cost of operation outweighed the cost of extracting the ore.  It's said that only 20% of the gold from the Empire has been removed- enough to create a 7 foot square block of pure gold.  The gold remaining inside the walls of the mine would have to rise to $1000 an ounce (think about how many ounces are in a pound?) to make the mine profitable again.  Gold came close in 1979 when it rose to $800 an ounce. There is so much gold remaining, even the large rock wall surround the state park ground is said to contain ample quanitites as it was made from the waste rock of the mine.  

The mine itself isn't open to tourists and merely the main opening is lighted to allow you to see down into the depths of the mine.  Much of the lower levels are now filled with water after the mining ended and the water table rose into the mine.

Currently an 800 foot shaft has been cut into the hillside. Known quite simply as the Underground Tour Project, the plan is to transport visitors through the new shaft and give a fresh hands-on experience to life inside the mine. After viewing several dioramas mining life and operations along the way, the tram finally reaches the main shaft where visitors can view the quartz vein which was mined upwards creating a large cavernous room called a stope. The tram will carry 24 people at a time with hard hats and rain slickers part of the tour. Keep tabs on as to when the mine shaft finally opens up.

After visiting the museum, walk up the path to the Bourn Mansion pictured above.  Built entirely of waste rock from the mine, the home is a beautiful example of late 1890's architecture. Designed to resemble an English country lodge, the home was built by Willis Polk.  

Surrounding the home are 13 acres of gardens and manicured lawns, impossibly green in Springtime.  Visit when the roses are blooming in the expertly cared for Rose Garden.  The reflecting pools, with the water dyed blue, also capture a glimpse of an era long since past.

As beautiful as the home is, William Bourn, Jr, only used the home two to four weeks out of the year.  He simply found the deafening noise from the nearby stamp mill too much to handle.  

He instead lived most of the year in San Francisco at the Fioli Mansion.  It was named after his motto of "Fight, Love, Live."

The Green House behind the Bourn Mansion

There's a small museum that all visitors should check out. Includes several placards, ample peroid photographs, and the Secret Room still in its original location.  It's open 10-5.  During summers, tours are given at intervals by knowledgeable docents who are either park rangers or volunteers.  The walking tour may include strolling down into the entrance of the mine and through some of the surrounding buildings.  Then through the inside of the Bourn Mansion.  

The stamp mill is nothing more than a pile of rubble, but its foundation is clearly visible, even from the satellite photo below. There is a stamping press that's been brought the site to view if you've never seen one before. Once you look at it you have to imagine 80 of them lined up and crushing rock 24 hrs a day. All to get to that 7 foot square block of gold.

Another of the reflecting pools

Around Thanksgiving to Christmas, the grounds are decorated for the festive season.  Tours this time of year include hot cider and (my favorite) cookies.

There's 22 miles of hiking trails that surround the 784 acres that the State of California now owns.  The state of California paid over $1 million for the mine in 1975.  

They don't, however, have the rights to anything below ground, namely the Empire Mine.

Empire Mine State Park
10791 Empire Mine St.
Grass Valley, CA 
Google Map

Quite a few wedding photographers use this site!

Nearby Motorcycle Roads:

Be sure and ride Yuba Pass - Highway 49.  If you are headed due north, you can connect up with Oregon Hill Road to La Porte Road which is the latest motorcycle mecca with fresh brand new pavement on up to Quincy.  

North of Empire Mine is Tyler-Foote Crossing Rd which runs up to Malakoff Diggins.  The longest single span covered bridge is nearby in Bridgeport via Pleasant Valley Road.

South of Grass Valley outside of Auburn is Foresthill Road which runs up to Mosquito Ridge.

More Info:

Empire Mine Photo Shoot

Empire Mine State Historic Landmark

Mapping of Empire Mine, Grass Valley, CA
3-D Satellite Photography of Empire Mine

Additional Photography of Empire Mine SHP


Living History Days at Empire Mine