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Going below for California gold.

Bearded prospectors, elbow to elbow, scratch the sands of creek beds in search of nuggets and fine gold. That is the image most likely to come to mind when the California Gold Rush is mentioned today. But not long after the Forty-Niners arrived in the foothills of the Sierras, a less scenic but more productive form of gold mining began being practiced, with experienced miners going underground to strike the mother lode. In the mining town of Grass Valley in 1850, prospector George Roberts staked a claim on a promising outcropping of gold-filled quartz. That claim became the Empire Mine, which produced about 5.8 million ounces of gold during a legendary 106- year operation.

As so often happened, the mine’s discoverer didn’t share in its wealth. Roberts sold his interests for $350 to the Woodbury Park Company, which installed a stamp mill used to process gold-bearing ore in what was then called the Ophir Mine. Experienced hardrock miners brought in from Cornwall, England, proved invaluable. But poor management led to the sale of the mine in 1852 to John Rush and other miners and then to the formation of the Empire Mining Company. In 1854, when the price of gold was $6.23 an ounce, the shaft of the Empire Mine extended 102 feet; seemingly the deeper the men dug, the more gold they found. The town embraced hard work and never became lawless as so many other Western mining camps did. Dancing sensation Lola Montez came to town and retired. Some $1 million in profits rolled in before the mine closed in 1863, due to flooding and workers going off to fight in the Civil War.

After the war, Captain S. Lee and A.H. Houston purchased the mine and, following the discovery of a high-grade vein, installed a new 30-stamp mill. Investors in San Francisco bought a half interest in the mine but showed little interest in the workers, who were uninsured and often became victims of silicosis or dynamite blasts. An industrious Catholic group in Grass Valley opened a much-needed orphanage. Another investor in San Francisco, William Bourn Sr., obtained a controlling interest in the Empire Mine in 1869. Prosperity reigned through the early 1870s, and 100 men were hired during a national depression. The mineshaft extended 1,250 feet, with miles of drifts (underground passages). The elder Bourn died in 1874, but the mine continued to be highly productive. By 1878, however, it appeared the good ore was gone, and the mine closed. William Bourn Jr. reopened the mine a few years later, and another rich vein discovered in 1883 provided more riches. Cornish miners designed a pump that removed 18,000 gallons of water each hour from the 1,700-foot shaft, keeping the mine from flooding. By 1888 the mine had produced nearly $5 million, but once again the good ore seemed to be running out, and the miners began to complain about working 10-hour shifts at $3 a day.

George Starr, Bourn’s cousin, rose from a job as a miner to superintendent. Previous managers had lived in San Francisco, but Starr became part of the Grass Valley community, marrying a local girl (Elizabeth “Libbie” Black-Crocker) in 1891. George departed two years later to become a superintendent at a gold mine in South Africa, but before long, at the urging of his cousin, he was back at the Empire Mine. Starr helped modernize the operation, based on things he had seen in South Africa, and the miners came to appreciate him for running a safe mine.

Most of the families living in Grass Valley enjoyed the community, where Libbie Starr and a friend formed the Empire Country Club, which hosted luncheons for visiting engineers such as future President Herbert Hoover. Nobody lived as well as owner William Bourn Jr., who had four elaborate mansions in California. The Cornish miners, in contrast, couldn’t afford country club society on the $3 a day that they were paid, but they and their families enjoyed the many church activities in town.

A miners’ strike in 1907 got the owners to agree to an eight-hour workday instead of 10, but pay remained at $3. George Starr estimated the Empire Mine had produced $18 million since 1854. Another strike in 1919 squeezed out a pay increase to the $6 a day the other miners in California earned. When the Empire Mine finally closed in 1956, the miners were making $10 a day. Through the years, many miners tried to supplement their income by sneaking gold nuggets home with them (four workers collected $250,000 in 1930 before they were caught). That led to a rigid inspection system in which a miner was required to leave his work clothes in one room after his shift and walk naked to another room to retrieve his own clothes.

The most loyal workers were the mules that pulled a string of seven ore cars on a track to a waiting chute. Miners fed them apples and carrots and risked unemployment if they abused the animals. Once they went to work, the mules seldom if ever came to the surface. The glare of daylight could cause blindness. In times of sickness, veterinarians treated them in the mine. During the 1907 strike, all 44 mules were blindfolded and removed to the surface, where they gradually became accustomed to the light. But most Empire Mine mules had the dubious pleasure of spending 30 years underground.

In 1920 William Bourn Jr. suffered a stroke, but the Empire continued to grow. His company acquired new mines, including the productive North Star. The Empire shaft reached the 6,200-foot level. In 1929 Bourn sold the mine for $250,000 to Fred Searls, who represented the Newmont Mining Corporation, and died seven years later. The Empire produced 1 million ounces of gold between 1929 and 1940 and had 836 workers in 1940. Just before World War II, the shaft reached 11,007 feet, but production was shut down during the war because the mine did not produce strategic minerals. After the war, the mine reopened but was not profitable. Production ceased less than a dozen years later. In 1975 California purchased surface rights at the mine for the Empire Mine State Historic Park. No doubt plenty of gold, now worth about $600 an ounce, remains buried somewhere below.


Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here