Golden past: How mining shaped western Nevada County |

Golden past: How mining shaped western Nevada County

Matthew Renda
Special to The Union

James Marshall, a carpenter from New Jersey who had incrementally migrated out west by way of Missouri and Oregon, first spotted a glint of metal in the millrace of a water wheel near the South Fork of the American River in the outskirts of Columa in El Dorado County in January 1948.

Marshall had been under the employ of John Sutter, an enterprising Swiss pioneer who had enlisted Marshall as the head carpenter for a timber mill he was building on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada.

The glint Marshall espied (historians debate whether it was Jan. 19 or 24) proved to be gold and was the first indication of the wealth that lay interred underneath the foothills which would attract the world's first and largest Gold Rush, attracting more than 300,000 people to the unsettled land that would soon become California.

In Nevada County, where the largest trove of gold in all of California awaited hordes of miners to unearth it, Jonas Spect was the pioneer who first discovered gold on the Yuba River on June 2, 1848, a little under six months after Marshall made his discovery in El Dorado County.

Interestingly, Marshall, who was leading a train of immigrants through Nevada County during the summer of 1848, is said to be the first white man to pan for gold on Deer Creek.

While both men prospected the river, with Spect working his way down toward Penn Valley, neither man found enough material to warrant establishing a permanent diggings.

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It wasn't until the following year, 1849, the year of the Gold Rush, that miners possessed of varying degrees of talent, skill and know-how began to course through the foothills of Nevada County, invading the ravines and streambeds with pans in the feverish quest for wild and excessive riches.

The first placer miners employed wooden bowls, then improved to pans before the sluice box was introduced in 1850 and was used up and down the running water bodies in Nevada County.

In the same year, on what's now known as Gold Hill in Grass Valley, George McKnight discovered the gold-bearing quartz that would yield the lion share of the precious metal for the century to come.

While many of the uneducated miners who flocked to the foothills thought the gold collected in the streams and rivers of Nevada County derived from an upstream source, the riches actually came from gold veins embedded in the quartz of the highly mineralized metamorphic rock endemic to the western slope of the Sierra Nevada.

Utilizing the skill of tin miners from Cornwall, England, the most enterprising and successful of miners ditched the hands and pans method and began the more technologically innovative, dangerous but ultimately productive method of hard-rock mining.

Empire Mine

George Roberts identified the Ophir Hill vein, which would eventually become the Empire Mine, which along with the Northstar Mine and the Idaho Maryland Mine would eventually produce nearly $300 million worth of gold.

Roberts founded the mine in 1851. In 1852, the mine was purchased by the Empire Company, which maintained mines throughout the area. Controlling interest of the mine changed hands several times throughout the 1850s, when many of the individual placer miners began to flee for Virginia City, Nev., looking to cash in on Nevada's burgeoning Silver Rush.

By 1869, William Bourn Sr. procured controlling interest in the company and the Bourn family would maintain control of the mine until 1929, when they sold it to Newmont Mining.

When Bourn Sr. died in 1874, his namesake, William Bourn Jr., assumed operation of the mine that most engineers believed had been picked clean over the past decades. Undaunted, Bourn Jr., just 21 years old at the time, poured money into exploration of the underground workings, that within four years continued to yield copious amounts of gold.

With his younger cousin, George Starr in tow, the two men transformed the plodding gold producer into a world-class showcase for modern mining, utilizing the Cornish miners' technological innovation of using steam pumps to keep the underground workings dry.

At its zenith, the mine employed more than 400 miners, who would board ore cars 20 at a time and be lowered rapidly down an incline to nearly 11,000 feet below the surface of the earth.

After getting the mine up and running, Bourn Jr. built a commodious mansion in San Mateo County and left the daily management to Starr. All told, 367 miles of underground workings are etched out beneath the 860 acres that currently comprise the Empire Mine State Historic Park.

Starr and other managers kept a "Secret Room" replete with blacked-out windows, the existence of which was known only to the most high-ranking executives in the operation.

In the room, the entire workings of the mine were detailed in a smaller scaled model where an inch correlated to thousands of feet.

In 1929, Bourn Jr. sold the mine to the Newmont Mining Corp. for $250,000, which operated the mine continuously until the advent of World War II, when the War Production Board forced the shutdown of the mine.

The War Production Board's decision was in stark contrast to the Abraham Lincoln's policy toward the gold mines in California during the American Civil War, as much of the precious metals that were disinterred during his administration were sold to augment The Union's coffers and bolster its war machine.

The mine opened briefly again in the 1950s, but the price of gold had plummeted so far that it was unprofitable to run the Empire Mine and it was closed for good in 1956.

In April 1975, Newmont sold the mine to the state of California for $1.25 million and the California Parks Department transformed the nearly 800 acres of land into one of the most visited vestiges of the California Gold Rush.

North Star Mine

The North Star Mine was first worked beginning in 1851 and was named the North Star Mine in 1860, according to historical accounts.

The mine is located near Wolf Creek on Auburn Road about one mile west of Empire Mine. A party of French miners discovered the gold vein and began working it. The vein was christened the Lafayette Lead.

In 1860, Edward and John Coleman, a pair of enterprising brothers arrived in Grass Valley, and bought the controlling interest in the mine and renamed it after Polaris.

The mine was owned briefly by William Bourn, who owned the neighboring Empire Mine, foreshadowing the eventual connection of the two underground enterprises, but Bourn sold it in 1887, three years after buying it, to James Hague and the Associates of New York.

In 1895, Arthur de Wint Foote was hired as an engineer at the North Star Mine and his first step was to develop the North Star Powerhouse — the highest capacity impulse-turbine power plant of the time employing large 30-foot Pelton wheels, which use flowing water to turn a turbine and produce power.

The North Star Powerhouse operated continuously for a 30-year period and on the strength of the technical innovation Foote ascended through the managerial ranks at the North Star Mine.

Eventually named general manager, Foote commissioned the now famed architect, Julia Morgan, one of the first prominent female architects who was vaunted for her unique approach to the American Arts & Crafts style, to build a large mansion on the North Star Mine's grounds.

Foote was also married to Mary Hallock Foote, a noted author and illustrator who penned several articles and sent them back East to publishers eager to furnish tales of the American West for a public ravenous for information about the adventurous frontier.

The Footes life story provided material for Wallace Stegner's masterpiece "Angle of Repose," published in 1972. The book would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is considered by some to be the single greatest novel to emerge from the American West, while others consider it to be blatant plagiarism.

Along with the Empire Mine, the North Star Mine was also bought in 1929 by Newmont and the two mines, once fierce competitors were merged by the mining conglomerate and operated under the banner of Empire-Star Mines, Ltd. until it was closed in the 1950s.

Together the North Star Mine and the Empire Mine produced about 6 million ounces of gold for a total haul of roughly $135 million during the era of operation.

Idaho Maryland Mine

Aside from the North Star and Empire Mine complex, the Idaho Maryland Mine was the second largest gold producer in western Nevada County and by extension California.

Samuel P. Dorsey first located the gold-bearing deposit located one and a half miles east of Grass Valley in 1861, well after the two other major hard-rock mining operations were underway.

At first two mines, one called the Idaho Mine and the other called the Maryland Mine, just to the west, cropped up at the spot and the owners of the two mines waged wars in the courtroom and through town.

Eventually, the Maryland Mine purchased its hostile neighbor and the Idaho Maryland Mining Corp. was founded, working through the shaft of the Idaho Mine.

From 1869 to 1892, the Idaho Maryland outpaced the Empire and the North Star and all other mines in California, producing about $11.4 million worth of gold during that period.

In 1901, the mine closed for a three-year stint, but in 1904, the Idaho Maryland Development Company formed to revitalize the mine, conducting surface repairs and employing the newest in dewatering technology.

The Idaho Maryland also closed in the mid-1950s due to the falling price of gold, although, in recent years efforts to resurrect the mine have surfaced. However, a lengthy environmental review process and overcoming significant local opposition would have to occur before miners could begin sifting through the underground veins in search of the flecks of gold that once drew pioneers in droves.

Western Nevada County and the two incorporated cities, Nevada City owe their entire existence to the highly mineralized geologically rich strata that lies beneath the surface.

In the early 1850s, Nevada City boasted a population of about 10,000 people, making it the third most populous city in the fledging state of California.

While the populations declined steadily after placer mining waned in 1860, the large hard-rock mining operations that surrounded both Nevada City and Grass Valley flourished, providing jobs and a local economy that gave rise to trading posts, retail stores, hardware outlets, hotels, transportation hubs, schools, doctors, dentists, bakers and all the amenities that comprise a bustling municipality tucked in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

At the pinnacle of gold production, the mines would run 364 days a year, with the crushing noise from the turbines and heavy equipment turned off for just a single day — the annual Miners Picnic.

The historic downtown areas of Nevada City stand as a living and vital testament to the Gold Rush period, as many of the storefronts and Victorian houses in the surrounding streets retain the same aesthetic of those bygone days.

The rivalry between the two cities, more genial than belligerent, dates back to the days of mining, when Nevada City was reserved for the upper crust, with the mine owners, the doctors, lawyers and other professionals, while the blue collars workers that made up the labor force would occupy Grass Valley.

While a highway has since divided the respective towns in two, much remains from the frenetic period when the two towns and the surrounding environs were minted by the myriad of gold mines.

Sources: Gold: The Saga of the Empire Mine 1850-1956 by F.W. McQuiston Jr.; History of Nevada County by Thompson and West; Nevada City History by Nevada County Gold; Empire Mine State Historic Park website; The Nevada County Historical Society website; Notes on the quartz mines of the Grass Valley District by Benjamin Silliman; Gold Rush Towns of Nevada County by Maria Bower.

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