It’s one thing to learn about California history and the famous California Gold Rush in school, reading about it textbooks and watching movies or researching it onkine or in books for a project, but it’s a whole different type of learning when you get to experience it first hand.
Experiencing history — seeing it, touching it, tasting it, hearing it, smelling it — is an opportunity to not just memorize facts to past a test, but to actually learn and retain information that will stay with you for life. It is for this exact reason that our family loves to go on our own family field trips and adventures, exploring historic mining towns and gold rush towns, and old gold mines, museums, and living history events of all types.
Two of our favorite historic gold rush sites are the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma, California and the Empire Mine State Historic Park in Grass Valley. I had visited both on school field trips when I was in fourth grade, and I looked forward to sharing the experience again with my kids and relearning some of the history I had forgotten.
Empire Mine State Historic Park
Empire Mine State Historic Park is the site of one of the oldest, largest, deepest, longest and richest gold mines in the state of California. In operation for more than 100 years, the gold mine produced 5.6 million ounces of gold (more than eight billion dollars worth by today’s standards) before it closed in 1956. The park features many of the mine’s original buildings, including the Bourn Cottage and the Club House, as well as restored gardens, old mining equipment, the ruins of mine manager George Starr’s family home, and artifacts.
You can also peek in the entrance to 367 miles of abandoned and flooded mine shafts with a vertical depth of over 5000 feet.
Empire Mine State Historic Park’s 800+ acres also offers twelve miles of scenic trails for hiking, biking, dog walking and horseback riding. Some trails pass heavily mined or inhabited areas, while others meander through fields of mining features such as waste dumps and placer mining landscapes.
We skipped the hiking. Not only were we unprepared, but it was already really, really hot and it would have just been a sweat hike — which we’re not into doing.
Living History And Tours
Our visit to Empire Mine began in the Visitors Center, which used to be the carriage and automobile house. The woman working at the front desk was really helpful, pointing out all of the important items in the park we should make a point to see, including the mineyard, the Bourn Cottage, the gardens, and the blacksmith shop.
If you visit the park during a living history day, the park comes to life with gold rush era characters in lavish period costumes. Ask them questions and experience a working day at the mine.
While guided tours of the cottage, mineyard, and gardens are available and included in the park’s admission fee, we grabbed a brochure and park map and set out on a self guided tour that started with the scale model of the underground workings of the Empire/Star Mine, the Gold Room with ore samples from local mines, and the Assay Office. We also got to check out:
- The Club House: The old tennis court site, the squash court, bowling alley, billiards table and the stately ball room
- The Mineyard: Get a first-hand look at the behind-the-scenes work that made the mine prosperous, including the Mineyard Office, the stamp mill remains, the Machine Shop, and the Blacksmith Shop
- The Bourn Cottage: Meet docents in early 1900s’ costumes portraying not only the Bourns, but the Starrs, as well as the chatty, charming housekeeper Katie Moriarty
- The Gardens: See nearly 1,000 vintage rose bushes of 56 different varieties — many from the original plantings around 1897 — and other plants and flowers
The Bourn Family Cottage
The Bourn Cottage was built for William Bourn, Jr. as a summer home for the Bourn Family. Designed by San Francisco architect Willis Polk, the 4,600 square foot Cottage was built out of local granite and used brick for the window and door surrounds and trim. The residence features a steeply pitched side-gabled roof, parapeted gables, dormers, multiple chimney shafts, round-arched entryways, and interior wood casement windows.
The cottage grounds include two large circular fountains on a sprawling green lawn, a greenhouse, large stone walls, a formal garden, brick and metal terraces, and a reflecting pool. Today the Bourn Cottage gardens are maintained by a State Park staff gardener and volunteers — and in the springtime, when everything is in bloom, they are absolutely spectacular.
Empire Mine History
In the early 1900s, Empire Mine was on top of the world. Its stamp mills pounded non-stop 24 hours a day. During the Great Depression, businesses across the country were failing, yet under the direction of owner William Bourn, Jr. and successful mine manager George Starr, the Empire Mine expanded operations and became the largest and most prosperous gold mine in North American history.
Here is a brief historical overview from the State Historic Park Brochure And Map, explaining the Empire Mine’s history:
In 1850, prospectors found gold-bearing quartz in what is now Grass Valley. Traditional placer mining methods, in which water was used to wash gold deposits from the sand or gravel of stream beds, was ineffective in this area. Instead, the miners used “hardrock” mining methods, in which men in buckets were lowered into deep shafts (coyote holes) resembling water wells to chip and drill through the rock. After filling the drill holes with black powder, they detonated it, loaded the blasted rock into ore cars and took it to the mine headframe for primary crushing.
At the stamp mill, the crushed ore, mixed with water, was placed on copper plates coated with mercury. The mercury-coated copper combined with “free” gold to form an amalgam. Water washed away any impurities, and the cleaned amalgam went to the refinery for further processing.
In 1905 the Empire adopted a more efficient mining method. In this process, cyanide was used to dissolve gold while it was still embedded in the quartz. The gold could then be leached out of the quartz ore in a liquid form. The cyanide method is still in use around the world.
Until mules were introduced, miners moved the ore-laden cars manually. Known as one of the most efficiently operated gold mines in the U.S., the Empire counted among its improvements the use of mules to pull ore cars. The mules lived in underground barns until they became too old to work.
The Empire Mine did not begin to prosper until 1869, after San Francisco businessman William B. Bourn, Sr., acquired a controlling interest. Production dropped in 1874, followed by Mr. Bourn’s sudden death that same year.
In 1879, Mr. Bourn’s 22-year-old son, William B. Bourn, Jr., took over management of the mine to keep it from closing. Fortunately, he was able to lead the mine back to profit. He was later able to push several mine shafts past the 1,200-foot level that had been considered the maximum depth.
Mr. Bourn’s 19-year-old cousin, George W. Starr, began work at the mine in 1881. By 1887 he had gone from loading rocks and ore into cars (mucker) to superintendent. In 1893 Starr—by then considered a mining genius—left to work in South Africa’s gold mines. When Starr visited San Francisco a few years later, Bourn convinced him to return to the Empire, where Starr worked another 30 years.
After 1929 the Empire Mine—first combined with the North Star Mine as Empire-Star Mines Ltd. and then sold to Newmont Mining—produced enough gold to keep the Great Depression of the 1930s just a story in the local newspapers.
The mine closed during World War II when many miners enlisted. In 1945 the mine reopened, but gold was still at its 1934 price — $35 per troy ounce. Unfortunately, it then cost more to bring gold to the surface than it was worth. However, mining efforts continued for another decade. In 1956, when the Empire closed, it had yielded nearly six million troy ounces of gold — a true bonanza.
In April of 1975 the State of California bought the land (over 770 acres) and formed the Empire Mine State Park. The Empire Mine is on the National Register of Historic Places, a federal Historic District, and a California Historical Landmark.
Planning a Visit To Empire Mine
If you’re planning a family trip to visit Empire Mine State Historic Park, be sure to pack a picnic as there are many picnic tables near the parking area and large shaded lawns to spread a picnic blanket out on. Trust me, your kids will love running around on the lawns and around the ground while you relax!
Also be sure to check out their special events and living history days. Living History days are on select summer weekends only, and is included with your park admission — with the exception of the Cottage Living History Experience, which is a $2 additional charge.