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Empire Mine, California

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Picture of mine yard at the Empire Mine

The Empire Mine was the largest and longest-operating gold mine in California. Established in 1850 at the beginning of the California gold rush, it closed in 1956. During that time, miners dug over 590 kilometers of underground tunnels up to 1,500 meters below the surface to extract some 219 tonnes of gold stubbornly embedded in quartz. The State of California bought the land in 1975 and developed it into a state historic park. It’s in Grass Valley, an easy drive from Sacramento along Highway 49, the road that links many of the historic towns and ruins from the gold rush era. Photograph of stone building at the Empire Mine

Picture of a derelict truck at the Empire Mine Photo of rusting electric motors at the Empire Mine

You can only visit a small part of the underground complex near the mine entrance. While the mine was open, a network of pumps kept groundwater out of the tunnels. The tunnels flooded when the mine closed. A project is currently underway to build a new tunnel and a railway for underground tours. Until that’s finished, you can wander the mine yard. Picture of a derelict truck at the Empire Mine

Photo of a derelict compressor at the Empire Mine Photo of a rusty compressor at the Empire Mine

The office buildings are made of waste rock from the mine, and resemble houses in Cornwall, England. William Bourn, Jr., the most illustrious of the mine’s owners, recruited his workforce from Cornwall. A long history of hard rock tin and copper mining gave Cornish miners extensive experience uniquely suited to digging gold from quartz. Today their influence remains most visible in the Cornish pasty (“pass-tee”), a meat pie that miners traditionally packed for lunch. The pies feature prominently on restaurant menus in Grass Valley.

Depending on your perspective and preference, the mine yard is either a treasure trove or a junkyard of derelict hardware left over from the mine’s century-long history. There are colorfully-painted trucks, along with equally colorful compressors, motors, parts, and sheds in various stages of decay.

I’m definitely in the “treasure trove” camp, since I find these items irresistible as photographic subjects. Unfortunately (or fortunately, again depending on your perspective) in the decade since I took these pictures the park has undergone various “historical restoration and visitor enhancement projects.” So by now some or all of this clutter may have been cleaned up and carted away.
Picture of a decorative fence in front of the Bourn Cottage Photo of the Bourn Cottage Picture of steps outside the Bourn Cottage Photo of the Bourn Cottage

At the end of the 19th century, William Bourn, Jr. paid his miners $3 per day. A foreman earned $4 per day. That was probably a decent wage at that time, about $72 and $96 respectively in 2006 dollars. But mining was dirty and grueling work, and labor and environmental regulations were essentially nonexistent. I can’t find any information about what Bourn paid himself. But it must have been substantial, judging by the park’s other major attraction.

Bourn spent $35,000 in 1897 to build a “cottage” on land next to the mine. That’s about $837,000 in 2006 dollars. Although it imitates an aristocratic English country lodge— complete with 5.25 hectares of the obligatory gardens, fountains, and lawns, plus a “clubhouse” for entertaining— it’s built from the same waste rock as the mine offices.

Bourn may have intended the “cottage” to show off his wealth and status for other members of local High Society rather than as a residence fit for the lord of a mining manor. He and his wife found the continuous noise from the adjacent stamp mill that crushed the quartz so distressing that they only stayed there for a few weeks each year. They spent the rest of their time at their much quieter estate in the mountains south of San Francisco.

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