"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

Empire Mine Evolves From Accident to Prominence

by Don Baumgart

     It could be said that hardrock mining around Grass Valley started by accident. George McKnight came by chance in 1850 upon an outcropping of quartz on a hillside near Wolf Creek where the white rock was laced with yellow.

     Rock from McKnight's four inch wide vein had to be smashed with a sledge hammer; work that cried out for mechanical improvements. With the help of friends he rigged a crude stamp mill out of pine tree logs with metal "boots" driven by Wolf Creek's rushing water. It was the beginning of Grass Valley's hardrock mining era; McKnight called his find the Gold Hill Mine.

     Three of McKnight's friends had been harvesting rock to use in building their cabin. Roger Lescohier tells this interesting sidelight in his book Gold Giants of Grass Valley. "Apparently the rocks looked very much like the one McKnight had stumbled over. Upon close examination they saw gold flecks in the rocks. They spent the whole next month crushing their fireplace and chimney and panned out $30,000 for their effort."

     The Gold Hill Mine was a spotty producer, but the spots were good; $4 million over the next 14 years. Then the vein "pinched out" and the mine disappeared.

     McKnight's discovery and venture into hardrock mining opened eyes. Four months after his first discovery another man, George Roberts, was out looking for timber. Instead he found gold-bearing quartz on Ophir Hill, about a mile from McKnight's find. The prosperous property changed owners a few times, finally landing in the hands of some local miners as the Empire Mining Company.

     Grass Valley built up around the Empire Mine, providing homes and services for the men who went underground every day, becoming one of the more important Gold Rush towns.

     "In 1855 the great fire which destroyed the entire town of Grass Valley burned my building and its contents and the dwelling house of my wife's mother -- with whom we were boarding," wrote transplanted easterner George Dornin. All was destroyed, except one trunk and a few articles of household goods.

     Dornin did what they all did after a fire levelled a mostly wooden Gold Rush town...he rebuilt.     

     Fine homes were commissioned by the mine owners and their elegance testified to the immense wealth being brought up out of the ground. Between 1854 and 1878 the Empire Mine produced gold worth some $2.9 million. By 1895 that figure had climbed to top $5 million. In its heyday the Empire employed a 30-stamp mill to crush 40 tons of gold-bearing quartz a day.

     William Bourne, Jr., owner of the Empire -- "Queen of the Northern Mines" -- commissioned an architect to design a $35,000 "cottage" with landscaped gardens near the Empire in 1897.

     Nearby Nevada City blossomed with fine Victorian homes where mine officials dined on plates that were shipped around Cape Horn.

     Martin Luther Marsh made his fortune during the Gold Rush by becoming, not a mining baron, but a lumber baron. He bought timber land around Nevada City and started a sawmill, producing the lumber for the big houses being built by the glitter in the pan.

     Wood was a resource desperately needed in the mines, for timbers and to fire the steam engines that hauled men and minerals up out of the ground. The few remaining photos of the underground mining era in Nevada County show hills as bare as an army recruit's head.

Copyright, Don Baumgart, 2002


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