An Afternoon at Empire Mine State Park


Many years ago I saw the run down grounds of the Empire Mine estate and thought it would make a wonderful park honoring our mining history. Eventually it happened. Spring is the perfect time to tour the park, because all the beautiful flowers are blooming. These pictures were taken during my friend Roberta's visit when we decided to check it out. My father worked in some of the mines. I remember the loud shift change whistle at the Idaho-Maryland mine in Grass Valley, and being shocked at the skip gondola (photo archives) that took the men underground. They looked like they were stacked on top of one another, going straight down into the hole. I was pretty young, but I'll never forget it. We also lived in Alleghany where dad worked at the Sixteen-to-One Mine.

The Empire Mine State Historic Park is the site of the oldest, richest, hard rock gold mine in California. From the time in 1850 when George Roberts discovered gold in a quartz outcropping, which became the Ophir vein, until the mine's closure in 1956, an estimated 5,800,000 oz. of gold were extracted from 367 miles of underground passage. The Cornish miners (nicknamed Cousin Jacks) devised a unique system of steam pumps, that emptied the water seepage from the depths of the mine. This enabled more productivity underground. They also provided most of the labor  from the late 1870's until 1956. During that time, the mine thrived under two separate ownerships. William Bourn Jr. inherited the Empire Mine from his father in 1877. With his own financial backing and the mining expertise of his younger cousin, George Starr, the Empire became a showplace in mining technology at the turn of the century. The Bourn family enjoyed a rich and active social life as well, as evidenced by the lovely gardens, residences, and social clubhouse.

Uncle Earl liked to tell the story about when our  dad came to Grass Valley to work in the mines. "He was standing in line when one old Cousin Jack came up to him and asked, "Say, aren't you Good-sound's grandson?" Your dad said he was, and the man told him that he didn't have to stand in go up to the office. Good-sounds family could always work there. He said that Billy Bourn and Good-sound had originally prospected over where the North Star Mine was. The foreman told Hoval that it was a tradition that any direct relative of Good-sound Tresise had a job at the Empire Mine if they wanted it. Your dad was around sixteen then. I started work underground about the same time at the North Star when I was fifteen.

Encouraged by Fred Searls (of Nevada City), Newmont Mining Corp. purchased the Empire from Bourn in 1929. Newmont also bought the North Star Mine, resulting in the formation of Empire-Star Mines, Ltd. Newmont continued its development and further sophistication under the management of Fred Nobs and Jack Mann. By 1956, an incline depth of 11,007 ft. had been reached. The 367 miles of shafts, drifts, and large caverned-out scopes were fully electrified, continually pumped, and renowned for maintaining a phenomenal degree of personal safety. It was a good mine to work in and a recognized training for every phase of mining.

The forced shut-down of the Empire-Starr Mines by the war production board started a gradual decline in profits. Expenses far exceeded the price of gold, which had been fixed by the government in 1934 at $35 an ounce. The mine shut off its pumps and auctioned equipment and buildings. For close to 20 years the mine was idle. The gigantic head frame was felled in 1969 to eliminate a potential public hazard. In 1975, the Empire properties were purchased by the State of California for the sum of $1,250,000. The park consists of 784 acres including approximately 750 acres of forested backcountry. Okay, now that you know a little of the history lets take a little tour.

The back of the house.

The social clubhouse.

Entrance to the mine shaft.

Roberta's checking out the interesting ore and mineral display. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to this beautiful historic place.