Sunday, December 2, 2018

RIches From the Empire Mine

By Paisley Kirkpatrick
The Empire Mine, located in Grass Valley, California, is one of the oldest, largest, deepest, longest, and richest gold mines in California. Between 1850 and its closure in 1956, the Empire Mine produced 5.8 million ounces of gold, extracted from 367 miles of underground passages.
My grandparents lived in Nevada City, another town situated in the Mother Lode. I loved exploring and visiting the gold mines and finding remnants lying on the ground not far from their house. Grandma and I found checks dated in 1901 from a gold mining company, crucibles (a ceramic container in which gold was melted at very high temperatures), and several other gold containers. I remember the first time I visited the Empire Mine. We actually stepped about four feet into the mine to the place where the miners loaded and unloaded into the cart that carried them deep down inside the mine.
We learned they kept canaries in cages. If one died, they knew methane gas (a colorless, odorless flammable gas that is the most common dangerous gas found in underground gold mines) was in that section. They would vacate that section of the mine. We also found out they'd take mules down into the mines to carry what the miners dug out of the walls.
In Oct. 1850, George McKnight discovered gold in a quartz outcrop (ledge) called the Ophir Vein. It was bought and purchased several times until the Empire Mining Co. was incorporated in 1854. Miners from the tin and copper mines of Cornwall, England, arrived to share their experience and expertise in hard rock mining. Particularly important was the Cornish contribution of the Cornish engine, operated on steam, which emptied the depths of the mine of its constant water seepage at a rate of 18,000 gallons per day. This increased the productivity and expansion underground. Starting in 1895, Lester Allan Pelton's water wheel provided electric power for the mine and stamp mill. The Cornish provided the bulk of the labor force from the late 1870s until the mine’s closure eighty years later.
A stamp mill machine crushes material by pounding rather than grinding, either for further processing or extraction of metallic ores. See below.
William Bowers Bourn acquired control of the company in 1869. Bourn died in 1874, and his estate ran the mine, abandoning the Ophir vein for the Rich Hill in 1878. Bourn's son, William Bowers Bourn II, formed the Original Empire Co. in 1878, took over the assets of the Empire Mining Co., and continued work on the Ophir vein after it was bottomed out at 1200 feet and allowed to fill with water. With his financial backing, and after 1887, the mining knowledge and management of his younger cousin George W. Starr, the Empire Mine became famous for its mining technology. Bourn purchased the North Star Mine in 1884, turning it into a major producer, and then sold it to James D. Hague in 1887, along with controlling interest in the Empire a year later.
Bourn reacquired control of the Empire Mine in 1896, forming the Empire Mines and Investment Co. In 1897, he commissioned Willis Polk to build the Cottage on land near the mine, using waste rock from the mine. The Cottage included a greenhouse, gardens, fountains and a reflecting pool.


  1. That's a BIG cottage, isn't it? LOL I enjoyed the post, Paisley.

    1. Thanks Caroline. We went back a lot of timee as my grandparents lived in the next city. Loved the cottage on the inside.

  2. I live about 25 minutes fro9m Grass Valley. The history here is fascinating! Thanks for the reminder to go visit the Empire!

    1. I hope you do go. It is educational as to the conditions those workers sent their hours underground.


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West! We are very sad to require comment moderation now due to the actions of a few spam comments. Thank you for your patience.