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Stories from the valley

The Empire Mine State Historic Park: A Hidden Historic Gem

Contributed by Keli Gwyn

The Empire Mine State Historic Park, located four miles southeast of Downtown Grass Valley, offers something for everyone. For those who admire beautiful buildings, the Empire Cottage, home of original mine owner, William Bourn, Junior, is sure to delight. Built in 1897 at a cost of $25,000, this English manor-style home sits amid thirteen acres of expertly landscaped grounds that include lush lawns, a duo of sparkling fountains, a reflecting pond, a heritage rose garden, and more. Lovers of nature will be in their element.

History buffs can unearth many interesting facts as they tour the mine, which was once the state’s richest producer of gold. Bourn operated the Empire Mine independently until 1929, when it merged with the North Star Mine. Starting in the Visitors Center, you’ll find a scale model of the Empire-Star Mine, which was kept in a blacked-out “Secret Room” during the days of the mine’s operation. It depicts the five square miles filled with underground workings, all 367 miles of them!

A stop at the shaft viewing area is sure to impress. Miners, sitting in long, skinny manskips, were whisked into the depths of the mine at a rate of 600 feet per minute. Considering the deepest shafts were 11,000 feet below the surface, these brave argonauts were in for quite a ride as they entrusted their lives to the skills of the hoist operator. Equally essential were the men who ensured the compressors that provided air for breathing and power for drilling were in working order.

Visitors with an engineering bent will be captivated by the machinery, as was my scientist husband. Some pieces can be viewed in the Compressor Building, Hoist House, and Machine Shop. More are on display in the mine yard, including hoists, compressors, pumps, ore carts, and a Pelton Wheel.

Encompassing 856 acres in the forested Foothills, the park includes several hiking trails for those who would like to get some exercise while taking in more historic sites, including several abandoned mines. The trails vary in length and difficulty, so be sure to consult the guide available in the Visitors Center. Hikers are encouraged to wear sturdy shoes and carry water.

Visitors eager to welcome the holidays are in for a treat. Holiday Magic at Empire Mine, an annual event traditionally hosted Thanksgiving weekend, will take place November 29 and 30, 2019 from 11 am – 4 pm. You’ll encounter docents in turn-of-the century attire throughout the park. Santa and Mrs. Claus will hold court in the Clubhouse. The Empire Cottage will host an open house. With live music, chestnut roasting, and tasty confections, this will be a wonderful way for those of all ages to welcome the holiday season.

For more information about the Empire Mine State Historic Park, including directions, click here. A memorable experience awaits you at this hidden historic gem.