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Empire Mine

Kristofer B. WakefieldA riot of flowers along the side of the Bourne Cottage.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

If you have a passion about – or an interest in – history, horticulture, hiking or horses – the Empire Mine State Historic Park is a treasure trove of varied interests.

Perhaps best known for the world famous Gold Rush mine it was named for, the more than 800 preserved acres in Grass Valley offer a chance to visit and relive the bygone days of gold mining and the vast underground life the miners led as they dug nuggets of gold from the mine’s crevices.

Nevada County’s heritage and economy centered on the Empire Mine, the oldest, richest hardrock gold mine in California in the late 1800s. The Empire, along with the Northstar and Idaho-Maryland mines, produced more than $400 million in gold during the heyday of the Gold Rush.



Today, however, its riches continue in the form of recreation and entertainment, and the Empire Mine State Historic Park offers up a few surprises along the way – the first being its affordable $1 entrance fee. Once you step from the warm and friendly Visitor’s Center through the heavy wooden door that leads to the park’s grounds, there’s no limit to the experiences that await you.

If you visit in May, head for the Rose Garden. No ordinary garden, this restored Rose Garden has nearly 1,000 specimen roses. The garden is carefully plotted with roses that date back to the 1300s with the most “modern” roses developed prior to 1929. The roses have been organized into eleven groups, starting in chronological order according to their date of discovery.




Extensive signage near the garden makes it a snap for visitors to identify each rose by name and date of discovery. Because the Rose Garden is organized so thoroughly and detailed on signs or booklets available at the Visitor’s Center, it is easy to see the evolution of the rose through nearly seven centuries. Imagine looking at the oldest cultivated European rose, the Gallica, a Camelia-like red rose with a wide blossom. This rose reportedly predates Christ and is often called the “apothecary rose” because of its strong, long-lasting fragrance. The Gallica, because of its scent, was often used in France to make medicines and perfumes.

A visit to the Rose Garden in bloom provides a visual history of the rose unlike any other. Visitors will notice the changes in leaves, blossoms and color as the roses were modernized and developed through the centuries. Sadly, as roses deveoped, they lost much of their scent, which is why “old roses” or “heritage roses” are often prized by gardeners and enthusiasts.

From the Rose Garden it is a stone’s throw to the Bourne Cottage, with its leaded glass windows and redwood paneling. Docents happily lead tours of the cottage each day at 1 and 2 p.m. If you like your history with a little pizazz, show up any weekend May through October and volunteers in historic dress portray members of the Bourne Family (the orignial owners of the Empire Mine) in what’s called Living History Days.

If hiking, mountain biking or riding a sturdy steed are your thing, the hundreds of acres of multi-use trails will keep you occupied. The Empire Mine is no secret to area equestians, as evidenced by the horse trailers parked at the Pennsylvania Gate off Empire Street. Due to the extensive trail system, however, it is common to ride for the better part of a day without passing another rider. Be careful if you ride a “spooky” horse, however, as hikers or mountain bikers may use the same trails. On a weekend day many walkers, often with family dogs, meander through the trails noting seasonal plants and enjoying the miles of open space where the mining once occurred.

For those interested in the mine and its checkered past, the Mine Yard comes alive one weekend each month as volunteers act as mine workers. See and hear the mining machinery, smell the blacksmith’s coal, or cool off in a mine shaft. The one-hour tours will be given eight times this year (see accompanying box with specific dates).

In the Visitor’s Center and Mining Museum there is a scale model of the underground mine and its 367 miles of shafts. A button outside the exhibit activates a taped narative about each of the mines’ many shafts, with cued lighting that comes on and highlights each part of the model as it is being explained. Coupled with the sepia-toned photographs on the walls of miners and their life underground, it doesn’t take much imagination to visualize the Cornish miners with their lunches of pasties and tea, poking and prodding the rich gold from the depths – nearly 11,000 feet – as they toiled in the dark.

A great family event – especially for school age children who are studying the Gold Rush – is scheduled for Saturday, June 1 this year. It’s called the Miner’s Picnic and features food, games and entertainment from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. throughout the park.


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