In 1950, just after his graduation from Grass Valley High School, Orlo Steele signed on as a mucker at Empire Mine.
“A mucker was the lowest-skill job,” he recalled. “We’d shovel ore into one-ton ore cars, and our eight-hour shift started at 7 a.m. I remember purchasing my own diggers (Levi’s), long-johns, hard hat and lamp. Lunch pail in hand, I’d board the man skip each day with my Cornish miner buddy, Norman Wasley, and mule skinner Joe Cortez.”
At nearly 6 feet, 3 inches, Steele was one of the taller members of his crew.
His hard work paid off, however, because by the end of summer, he was fit, strong and ready to play football as a freshman tackle at Stanford University, where he graduated in 1955 with a B.A. in political science and a minor in history.
The Steele family moved here when Orlo was 9 years old. His father worked for Clinch Mercantile on Bennett Street, where everything from nails to dynamite was sold.
“I remember when residents could set their clocks by Empire Mine’s whistle at 7 a.m., noon and 3:30 p.m.,” Steele said. “Gold fever still runs in my veins.”
For the last 18 years, following impressive careers in the military and government, Steele still works hard at Empire Mine, only today he is a volunteer tour guide as part of the mine’s Living History Program. Still wearing his hard hat, work shirt, Levi’s and mucker boots, he shares firsthand information about what a miner’s life was like. In fact, he’s one of Empire’s many fine ambassadors, welcoming thousands of visitors each year from all over the world.
“I am so grateful that Empire is now a state park,” he said.
“It’s an honor to help make our hard-rock, gold mining history mean something special to them. I particularly enjoy meeting visitors from Cornwall and learning about their past links with the mines. In 1936, during the Great Depression, 2,600 miners were employed in western Nevada County and being able to share such impressive facts remains a thrill. I’m also reminded that, yes, gold fever still runs in my veins.”
Those who have attended recent annual miners picnics at Empire Mine State Historic Park – and have witnessed the nail-biting mine rescue at high noon – have probably already seen Orlo being carried out of the mine on a stretcher.
“Traditionally, I play the victim,” he laughed. “I have no lines to remember, and I don’t have to emote. All I need to do is moan and remember to splash some fake blood on my work shirt to add to the drama.”
He has an impressive resume of local and national service.
Steele’s military career with the U.S. Marine Corps from 1955 to 1990 included service in Vietnam, France, Guantanamo, South America, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. He retired as a major general.
For the next three years, Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. was his home while he was director of security for the Federal Aviation Administration, heading 800 agents worldwide involved in bomb detection, screening and dog programs.
On a personal note, Steele and his wife, Cathy, will soon celebrate their 52nd wedding anniversary.
The 118th Miners Picnic will be held on Aug. 24. Once again, Steele will cheat death and be saved by his fellow miners and a crew in a vintage fire engine.
What may be different this year is that now attendees know the blood-spattered miner on the stretcher is alive and well and continuing to make a big difference in our community’s gold-fever history.
Courtney Ferguson is a freelance writer in Nevada County.