Nearly 30 years ago, a wonderful idea was born here in Grass Valley. It was to get visitors to the Empire Mine State Historic Park to go underground to experience part of what it was like to extract gold from a hard-rock mine.
Park officials at that time realized this was a fantastic opportunity to fulfill the primary purpose for which the mine was acquired and made a state park. Community leaders could see that, in addition to being a wonderful educational opportunity, this experience would provide a big boost to western Nevada County tourism — the classic win-win situation. At least you would think so.
The state park director in Sacramento recently decided, after getting input from sources, some of whom I believe were not competent to offer educated opinions on things like mine ground support, to shut down this project “forever.” He also used State Fire Marshal letters declaring the underground tour (UGT) area to be unsafe, even though the State Fire Marshal has no regulations specifically dealing with mine-like areas. They purportedly used regulations for “wine caves” and at an occupancy capacity more than 20 percent greater than the tours could accommodate.
Interestingly, a CalOSHA mining and tunneling inspector said the safety measures taken in the construction of the UGT exceeded safety requirements for a working mine … a working mine where blasting and hauling large quantities of rock and ore took place. Well, we didn’t have a working mine, we just had a tunnel to show people of all ages what a hard-rock gold mine was like.
It took a long time and the help of many people — local and state elected officials, local business leaders, thousands of hours by park volunteers and support from local and Sacramento-based state park leaders.
Funding came from the Empire Mine Park Association, Newmont and Homestake mining companies, two state park bond acts, a grant from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment, private individuals and even from a second-grade class at Williams Ranch School to get the project virtually completed.
The only task remaining was to evaluate and possibly repair the untreated steel ground support members that state engineers required be substituted for the originally designed wooden supports. The untreated steel is corroding much faster than state park engineers had anticipated.
So, here we are, 28 years after conceptualization, over $4,000,000 already spent and a fantastic history of community and volunteer support. We should not be closing down this project forever, and we shouldn’t be content with replacing it with an above-ground “underground experience.”
The State Fire Marshal’s office needs to defer ground support issues to an agency that has appropriate regulations governing such matters. State park engineers should consult appropriately licensed mining engineers to find a solution to provide for safe ground support. Maybe our legislators can get funding in a future year’s budget to complete this project and get it open. Let us ask them.
For our community, for the educational opportunity, for the sake of current and future generations, this project needs to be completed. It is the right thing to do.
Ray Patton was park superintendent at Empire Mine State Historic Park from 1986 to his retirement in 2004. He lives in Grass Valley.
So, here we are, 28 years after conceptualization, over $4,000,000 already spent and a fantastic history of community and volunteer support. We should not be closing down this project forever ...