Volunteers want Empire Mine tunnel completed | TheUnion.com

Volunteers want Empire Mine tunnel completed

Matthew Renda
Staff Writer

Empire Mine State Park Association volunteers joined the Nevada County Board of Supervisors in urging the California Department of Parks and Recreation to finish what it started.

The project to build a nearly 875-foot adit — a mining tunnel — under Empire Mine State Historic Park is on hiatus. The tunnel would give visitors a chance to glimpse a central portion of the labyrinthine underground workings that once served as the world's largest gold mine.

In 1986, the community and the parks department first conjured the idea to construct the tunnel, which would be lined with interpretive signs that detail the rich history of the California Gold Rush and the instrumental role that western Nevada County played in the pivotal 19th-century event.

The board unanimously approved a resolution intended to show state legislators and officials within the state parks department a unification of local will toward finalizing the languishing project.

“If we get this thing done, it’s an investment, and it will give returns to our community far into the future.”
Nevada County Supervisor Terry Lamphier

"The resolution encourages the state to act," said association President Larry Skinner.

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While the project has been contemplated since 1986, a shovel was finally put in the dirt in 2004, and construction crews steadily performed work until 2012, when well-publicized financial difficulties and administrative malfeasance plagued the parks department.

Skinner and other volunteers have since met with newly minted California Parks Director Anthony Jackson, who they hope will put the project back on track toward completion.

The group includes Orlo Steele, formerly a general in the United States Marine Corps and a volunteer docent at Empire Mine; Jim Dierberger, past president and a current volunteer at the park; and Virginia Brunini, who was part of the purchase process when state parks bought the parcel from Newmont Mining Corp. in 1975.

They have also met with state Senator Jim Nielson and other state representatives.

"The wheels are greased, and we are ready to go," Skinner said.

Skinner said the addition of the tunnel would likely generate an additional $1 million to the local community, as the underground tour is unique in the California parks system and is only paralleled by a few privately run mining tours in the American West.

Currently, about 100,000 people visit Empire Mine park; its popularity and the park's capacity to generate revenue prevented it from landing on the closure list that included two other local parks — South Yuba River State Park and Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park.

Nate Beason, who often criticizes aspects of the state government from the dais at the Tuesday board of supervisors meeting, expressed worry that the parks would not be reliable partners in the effort to complete the project.

Beason cited the department's ill-fated attempt to close 70 parks without a cost-benefit analysis, the discovery of $22 million that had been hidden by members of the department's financial staff and the practice of giving inappropriate pay raises to senior members of the department.

"We hope that's water under the bridge," Skinner said.

Matt Green, the Sierra Gold Sector superintendent, said allocations to the project have been requested.

The major cost hurdle relates to the replacement of steel set bracing crucial to the internal integrity of the tunnel.

The bolstering elements are in a state of accelerated decay due to groundwater and rising damp air from the workings, Green said. Due to the mandated five-year maintenance schedule, 31 of the bracing sets require replacement, and funds are not currently available to perform the work.

Skinner and the other volunteers retain hope that exerting political pressure will help propel the project up the priority list.

Members of the board agreed to do their part, going so far as to offer to craft a letter to be sent to state leaders.

"Without completion … we purchased a hole in the ground," said Supervisor Terry Lamphier. "If we get this thing done, it's an investment, and it will give returns to our community far into the future."

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email mrenda@theunion.com or call 530-477-4239.

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