California Gold Rush’s Richest Mine and Original Sin
By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: California Gold Rush’s Richest Mine and Original Sin is about the Empire Mine and the Malakoff Diggins. Both are now California state parks. At the former, deep rock gold mining produced prodigious wealth. At the latter, miners harnessed water to wash down hillsides in search of gold. This hydraulic mining was a major original sin in mining, polluting the rivers downstream and San Francisco Bay with silt from the hillsides. I have been on an environmental test boat on San Francisco Bay where we had to go down 39 inches through Gold Rush silt to get to the original oyster shell beds. This article is also a chapter update in my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are updated, a new edition of the book will appear.)
The Empire Mine and Malakoff Diggins
The big money in mining in the latter part of the Gold Rush lay in deep rock mining, which required huge capitalization. The Empire Mine proved to be the richest of all. North of the Empire Mine, at Malakoff Diggins, another strategy was to wash away whole hillsides, seeking the gold, regardless of the downstream silting, which ruined fisheries and farming, raised the riverbed levels, and caused flooding. Wars between miners and farmers ensued.
The Historic Story: Empire Mine
The Empire Mine State Historic Park (530/273-8522; https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=499) was the richest gold mine in California. What is intriguing here is what you see and what you don’t see. Above ground at this Grass Valley location, you can gaze upon some marvelous examples of gold in quartz rock at the Visitor Center.
Outside you stroll the landscaped grounds of mine owner William Bourn, Jr. The architectural gem is Bourn’s “Empire Cottage,” a sumptuous stone building designed by noted architect Willis Polk. Adjacent to the Cottage is a rose garden with roses developed from ancient times to 1929.
Also above ground you can view the remains of the mining apparatus, the machine shops and the stamp mill, used here for 106 years of operations. You can peer 150 feet into the shaft of the mine, where the miners went down and the ore came out. However, the mine is closed to the public.
What you don’t see, however, but what you can envision after you have viewed a scale model of the underground mine in the Visitor Center, are the 367 miles of underground mine tunnels, sometimes descending over a mile deep and sprawling at all levels over a five-square-mile area. The underground system is enormous.
The story of the Empire Mine is the later phase in the Gold Country saga, when the serious gold to be found lay in deep rock veins, requiring massive capital to exploit. The secretly built model of all the underground tunnels was constructed by the mine engineers for the express purpose of determining the veins of gold and plotting where to tunnel next.
Once you’ve seen the model, you can appreciate the maze-like unseen world below ground.
At the Empire Mine some 5.8 million ounces of gold were removed.
The Historic Story: Malakoff Diggins
If Empire was indeed the premier Gold Mine, Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park was the true environmental Original Sin.
Located 26 miles northeast of Nevada City, this state historic park is the scar and eyesore of the Gold Country. In other words, the tragedy here has many aspects–visually, historically, and spiritually. In fact, this park serves as an example of the most environmentally degrading activities of man in California. The address is 23579 N. Bloomfield Road and you can get there via Tyler-Foote Crossing Road from Highway 49. Details:530/265-2740; http://malakoffdigginsstatepark.org.
Malakoff was the world’s largest hydraulic gold mine. Huge nozzles, called monitors, were connected with elaborate ditches and flumes that diverted mountain streams. The nozzles blasted away at the gravel hillsides, washing down the soil.
The pit created at Malakoff is fully a mile long and originally 600 feet deep. As the gravel washed through sluices, the heavier gold could be separated. The environmental disaster was due to all the silt that remained in the water and proceeded downstream. Farms and towns flooded due to clogged rivers as the streambeds filled in with silt. Hydraulic mining ended by court order in 1884.
Today the park encompasses 3,000 acres of oak woodlands, pine forests, and meadows. The white wooden buildings of the North Bloomfield townsite, located in the park, have been restored and re-furnished to show what life was like here in the 1870s.
To reach these California Gold Rush locations, drive east from San Francisco on Interstate 80, passing north of Sacramento. Continue on Interstate 80 until you reach Highway 49. Then north to Grass Valley (home of the Empire Mine) and beyond on 49 to the Malakoff Diggins. If you follow your GPS, you will discover eight miles of unpaved and winding road to Malakoff. Be sure so allow plenty of time. However, a better way is to take the Tyler-Foote road from Highway 49. The Empire Mine could absorb a half-day of time. Malakoff would require a day to explore.
Be Sure to See
The Empire Mine is in Grass Valley and Malakoff Diggins is north of Nevada City.
Best Time of Year
Summer would definitely be the best time of the year because the resources at both parks are then up and running. The steep gravel road into Malakoff is passable in the dry season, chancier in the wet of winter. The Tyler-Foote Crossing Road is mostly paved.
Because of its fine Victorian homes, the Gold Country has become a prime B&B territory for the California explorer. A good example of such lodgings in Grass Valley is known as Elam Biggs Bed & Breakfast, 220 Colfax Avenue; 530/477-0906; http://elambiggs.com/. A charming Victorian home, this B&B features a number of rooms with four-poster beds, claw-foot tubs, and antique furnishings.
One good Chilean-inspired eatery in Grass Valley is Diego’s, 217 Colfax Avenue; 530/477-1460. The food is tasty, and you can eat in the dining room or on the outdoor patio. Recipes are prepared daily in traditional South American style.
For Further Information
The two California Gold Rush state historic parks, Empire and Malakoff, are your information sources. Contact: Empire Mine State Historic Park, 530/273-8522; https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=499. Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, 530/265-2740; https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=494.
For info on Nevada City, contact the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce (132 Main St.; 530/265-2692; https://www.nevadacitychamber.com/). For info on Grass Valley, contact Greater Grass Valley Chamber of Commerce (530/273-4667; https://grassvalleychamber.com/.