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The Empire Gold Mine
Submitted By: XNGH Jason Thorn Date: May 08, 2010, 06:43:54 PM Views: 6068

Originally published in the Hewgag Monitor by Tom Barry in February, 1994


   As outlined earlier in this series, gold mining most often took one of three forms.

   One of the most commonly known methods is Placer mining, in which the miners dug gravel or sand and washed it with water in a pan or in a corrugated riffle until the heavier gold was separated from the lighter sand or gravel. Ancient miners were able to amass large quantities of gold using these methods, as evidenced by the gold found in such societies as the Egyptians and the Aztecs. California miners used these methods at first, because the gold they sought lay mostly in stream beds, or very near them. The source of water was close at hand, and the stream had already done much of the separation work.

   Hydraulic mining was developed when the gold-bearing gravel was too far from water, or when the gold lay in such deep deposits of gravel that hand digging was impractical. Huge streams of water, imported by flumes from distant sources, and intensified by being forced through nozzles, were directed at the gravel mountainsides until they were literally pulverized.

   But these methods were found to be inadequate to get to the gold at its source - the quartz rock from ancient volcanic action. Not all quartz carried gold, of course, and that which did have streaks of gold only came to the surface in rare instances. The hard rock could be broken away, crushed to fine sand and panned or riffled, but this soon meant that the gold-bearing strata had to be followed into the ground until long tunnels were needed to continue the search.

   Tunnel mining was covered last time in this series, in which silver mines in the Comstock in Nevada were highlighted. Silver mining in the Comstock was a bit different from hard rock mining, in that the ore in the Comstock was more unstable and required a lot of shoring to prevent cave-ins.

   One of the most famous and long-lived hard rock mines in California was the Empire Mine in Grass Valley. First discovered in 1850 by George D. Roberts, the Empire ledge was bought and sold many times during its early days. The working of a hard-rock mine took large amounts of money to provide the proper equipment for the miners, and many of the owners went bankrupt when the amount of gold being found was unable to keep up with the expense of operating the mine. Contributing to the risky business of hard-rock mining was the inexperience of the miners and poor management by the owners.

   Tin and copper miners from Cornwall, England came to work in the Grass Valley area beginning in 1852. These men were experienced in hard-rock methods, and had developed equipment which made mining the ever-deepening shafts safer and more profitable.

   By 1861, most hard-rock miners in Nevada County were from Cornwall. One of the most valuable contributions of the Cornishmen, as they were known, was the Cornish Pump, a huge, bulky concoction of iron and wood which was able to pump ground water out of the mines. (The mine is flooded today.) As the mine reached greater depths, much of the miner’s time was spent getting to and from the work location. Later miners rode (20 at a time) in skips and dropped into the main shaft at a speed of 800 feet per minute, eventually reaching working areas up to 11,000 feet deep into the earth. Originally, the miners were lighted by only the candles they carried, as they bored holes in the rock with hand-held drills and hammers. Blasting the rock with explosives, then mucking the rock into ore cars for transportation to the surface was only the beginning of the process to wrest the gold from the ore. Huge banks of stamp mills ran continuously, crushing the rock into fine sand. In 1868, the Empire’s 30-stamp mill could crush 40 tons of rocks into sand every day. Then the sand was treated with running water, and even chemically treated to wring more gold from its hiding places.

   Good management of the miners and the whole operation of the Empire Mine came in the form of the Bourn family. As new techniques were developed, they were adapted for use at the Empire.

   There were problems, of course, and in 1870 fire destroyed the stamp mill and most other surface buildings and equipment. Quick repair of the damage brought the Empire back better than ever, and in 1871 the mine was rated as the best in Nevada County. Between 1854 and 1878, the mine produced about $3 million, when some mining experts insisted that the mine was worked out and recommended that it be closed.

   William B. Bourn, Jr., the owner’s son, who had gained control of the mine in 1877, disagreed. He used the latest in technology and equipment to systematically explore the mine, locating a rich vein. His cousin, George W. Starr, was hired as mining superintendent, and the mine continued a long, profitable life, closing finally in 1956 when the costs were no longer able to be offset by the $35 an ounce price at which gold had been fixed. The company’s South African mines were more economical to operate than the Empire because of cheaper labor costs. Much of the machinery and equipment was sold and it seemed that the “end of an Empire” was at hand.

   Today, visitors to the mine do so under the auspices of the California State Park System, which acquired the mine and more than 770 acres of land in the vicinity. Visitors can tour the Bourn “Cottage” (a mansion for occasional use by the owners), and its surrounding 12 acres of grounds which once included a maze of native plants and trees, a 1500 bush rose garden which stocked the Golden Gate Park Arboretum. Surrounding the area is a huge rock wall made from rock taken from the Empire. As an aside, Chapter 10 XNGH Ed Lund, masonry contractor extraordinaire, won a contract to rebuild some sections of the wall several years ago. You can visit the large shingled building, “The Empire Club,” which boasted a spring-supported dance floor, a tennis court, bowling alley, billiard room, handball and squash courts, and nearby areas for badminton, croquet, and horseback riding. Were these amenities for use by the miners? Sadly, that was not the case, for although many famous visitors did visit the mine, the Cottage grounds were off-limits for the miners.

   Also visible at the park are the equipment sheds, machine, electrical and carpenter shops, and a refinery, where the gold was transformed into bullion. A look down the main shaft into the bowels of the mine may inspire visions of the miners scrambling around the more than 350 miles of tunnels, or of the mules, many of which never saw the light of day as they spent their entire lives underground.

   In the more than 100 year operation of the Empire Mine, more than $120 million in gold was wrested from the earth from this one mine alone, and there were hundreds of mines in the area.

   In early 1899, the Grass Valley Union, in a series of articles about mining in California, made the following observations: Over 19,000 men were employed in California as miners in gold, silver, lead and copper, almost 2000 of them in Nevada County alone. Nevada County produced about $2.5 million annually, mainly due to the reopening of old mining properties, the increase and improvements in mining equipment and the development of unexpectedly rich deposits.

   The Empire Mine had already produced $7 million in its 48 years of operation. The North Star Mine, $6 million so far, kept a 40 stamp mill busy. Other mines such as the Allison Ranch, Omaha, W.Y.O.D. and Massachusetts Hill mines were also showing good prospects. New equipment in the Brunswick Mine caused its stock to almost double in a few months. The Osborn Hill mine had been purchased by W.B. Bourn, Jr., and was to be reopened with George Starr as manager.

   In the Nevada City area, the Providence and the Champion had each produced over $7 million so far, and were still going strong. The biggest pump ever used in Nevada County was to be placed on the Union Hill Mine. Manufactured locally by the Taylor Brothers Foundry, the pump may have been the biggest in the state. Other local mining districts also reported good business, with the Delhi mine at Columbia Hill reopening and the California mine in the Washington District was proving to be a bonanza, yielding rich ore.

   Even hydraulic mining was being talked about, as the California Debris Commission worked on plans which would divert the entire flow of the Yuba River into a canal that opened into a storage basin several miles wide and about 15 miles long which would receive hundreds of millions of cubic yards of debris from hydraulic mining, returning water to the Bear and Feather Rivers free of sediment.

   In actuality, most legal hydraulic mining in the area had been stopped in 1884 by an injunction (The Sawyer Decision).

   So what about now? Is all of California’s gold gone? Not by a long shot! With the price of gold now allowed to “seek the market,” many gold mining operations operate today. Recent discovery of a huge vein of gold in the Sixteen-to-One mine near Allegheny hit the news. Over 3500 ounces of gold was found in one day in one location. Its value, about $1.25 million, will be even more as the gold is in such beautiful formations that much of it will be sold as “specimen gold,” more prized for its beauty than just gold.

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