Grass Valley, CA 95945 United States
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The park encompasses 856 acres of forested backcountry and 14 miles of trails
– including easy hikes for hiking mountain biking horseback riding
While the park grounds are beautiful and fascinating, the real treasure lies below.
Between 1850 and its closure in 1956, the Empire Mine produced 5.8 million ounces of gold, extracted from 367 miles of underground passages.
TOUR EMPIRE MINE
Explore the Park at your own leisure, and stay as long as you like at the places that interest you most.
Pick up a brochure and map at the Visitors Center, and enjoy the day your way!
All GUIDED TOURS are suspended indefinitely due to COVID-19. This also includes the following tours and activities: Mine Yard Tours, Garden Tours, Estate Tours, Living History, Clubhouse History, Mine Yard Experience and Cottage Living History.
Brochure & Maps
Download the Park Brochure for maps, trails, building sites, and detailed information.
Plan Your Visit
Some of our historic doorways are narrow, and some stairs are steep. Therefore, not all exhibits and areas are easy to access. To arrange for transportation, to borrow wide-tire wheelchairs, or to simply learn about alternative entries or lifts, ask at the Visitors Center – or give them a call on (530) 273-8522. Information is also available at http://access.parks.ca.gov.
What should you wear?
Layered clothing is always a good idea
Check the weather forecast for Grass Valley, CA before arrival. Grass Valley is warm to hot in the springtime and summer; cool in the autumn; and often cold in the winter – snow is infrequent at this elevation. Our rainy season usually lasts from November through May.
Comfortable shoes are important
Some of our trails are rocky and may be fairly steep. Since the Park does have its fair share of poison oak, long sleeves and other protective clothing are highly recommended. It’s also wise to have sunscreen and insect/tick repellent on hand.
Learn more about other impressive California State Parks at www.parks.ca.gov.
A friendly welcome awaits you at the Visitor Center
Here’s where you’ll
- Pay your entry fee
- Ask questions about the best ways to enjoy your day
- Get Information about tours and activities is readily available
Don’t miss the scale model of the underground workings of the Empire/Star Mine complex or the “gold room” that displays ore samples from local mines.
The Assay Office and the extensive mineral collection are worth seeing as well.
With its wide range of treasures for all budgets, including geological artifacts, books, prints, jewelry, and mementos, prepared to be surprised and delighted.
Tears from the Sun
Enjoy a 20-minute mining presentation called “Tears from the Sun,” shown by request in our Visitor Center theater.
In just a few spellbinding minutes, you’ll learn about the heady Gold Rush days of 1849. You’ll also see 100 years of California mining technology unfold, as hard rock, placer, hydraulic and industrial dredging techniques are explained. Detailed footage covers mining and ore processing at Empire Mine during its final years of operation – as well as one of the last hydraulic mines in California.
Written and edited by Stanley H. Halls and narrated by Fred C. Forsman, copies of “Tears from the Sun” may be purchased in the Gift Shop.
Restrooms (with A.D.A. and baby changing facilities) are located between the parking area and the Visitor Center.
The Visitor Center is #1 on the Park Map. The arrow points to the Visitor Center. Click HERE to look at the Park Brochure to see the Park Map.
Filming & Permits
Features of the Park
Scheduled tours and special events offer visitors so many ways to enjoy Empire Mine State Historic Park
Public Tour Schedule
FALL/WINTER/SPRING – Monday – Sunday
Estate Tour: 1:00 PM
Mine Yard Tour: 2:00 PM
Garden Tour: 11:00 AM, Sat. & Sun. only
For information regarding park tours and times, call the Visitor Center:
* Weather and Staff availability may affect tours & times. Please confirm before making plans.
Explore the Park at your own leisure, and stay as long as you like at the places that interest you most. Pick up a brochure and map at the Visitors Center, and enjoy the day your way!
Guided Tours (Included in your admission, except for the Cottage Living History Experience.)
Let our Tour Guide docents share their knowledge, and take you back in time, so you can discover Empire’s lasting legacy.
A 45-minute tour filled with fascinating facts about how the gold was mined and processed. You’ll learn eye-opening statistics as well as how the equipment, mules and miners made Empire Mine so prosperous.
One-hour tour that’s a delight for gardening enthusiasts. Empire Cottage’s famous gardens feature many varieties of roses and other plants. Most of the roses are from original plantings around 1897 – well over a century ago!
Includes access to Empire Cottage & the Clubhouse.
Meet the characters who shaped our history, portrayed by convincing docents. Personal insights, little-known facts, and lavish period costumes make the experience memorable.
Go ahead and ask them questions. The answers are historic and often entertaining.
Living History is presented on selected summertime weekends only and is included in admission. Although there is no additional charge, donations are gratefully accepted for the Cottage Living History Experience.
Clubhouse Living History
Tennis anyone? See the old tennis court site, the squash court, bowling alley, billiards table and the stately ballroom. Here is where the Bourns’ guests came to relax and have fun.
Mine Yard Experience
The Mine Yard Experience occurs on special days when visitors may have access to some buildings not typically open to the public, at no extra charge. Phone the Visitor Center, (530) 273-8522, to confirm.
Cottage Living History Experience
The prestigious Bourn Family is in residence, and you are a most welcome guest in their “cottage” home. For many Park visitors, this is the highlight of their day. Docents dressed in early 1900s’ attire portray not only the Bourns but the Starrs, as well as chatty, charming housekeeper Katie Moriarty. An up-close-and-personal experience you’ll never forget!
14 miles of scenic trails
Our over 800 acres of trails are open year round
- Dog walking
- Horseback riding
Enjoy an unusual combination of foothill forests, wildlife and wonders as you explore them.
Don’t forget your sunscreen and insect repellent! Also, stick to the trails to avoid contact with poison oak.
Hardrock Trails Area
The Hardrock Trails Area encircles the main part of the Park (where the Visitors Center, historic buildings and mining machinery are located). Along these trails, you’ll find points of interest from Empire’s gold-mining past. You may also enjoy the camaraderie of sharing them with others.
Click here for a complete description of the trails and a detailed trail map, including all of the trail heads.
Union Hill Trail
Separated by the Colfax Highway and farther away from the Park’s Visitors Center area, the Union Hill Trails loop in interesting configurations. Visitors have the scope to plan hikes of varying lengths, yet they’re still surprisingly close to Grass Valley. Peaceful – usually with fewer people – the Union Hills Trails are highly recommended for hikes with built-in tranquility.
Click here for a complete description of the trails and a detailed map.
Dogs & Horses
- Owners are responsible for removing dog waste.
- We have a six-foot leash requirement throughout the Park.
- Citations may be given to owners whose dogs are off leash.
- Dogs are welcome visitors too – especially when their owners follow the rules.
- Dogs are not allowed inside the historic buildings or in the mine shaft.
- Service dogs are allowed inside Empire Cottage and the Clubhouse.
- Fresh water is available for dogs in the Visitor Center and in the Blacksmith Shop.
REMEMBER, even if you choose a shady parking place, it can become a dangerous “hot spot” quickly.
DO NOT LEAVE YOUR DOG IN THE CAR WHEN THE WEATHER’S HOT
Open the gates at the Penn Gate parking area, and you’ll see a large staging area for horse trailers. Since not all trails are open for horses, please stay on clearly-marked, designated trails. While you and your horse are welcome to explore the miles of trails, horses are not permitted on the Park’s historic grounds. Ride safely and considerately – and have fun exploring!
Open from sunrise to sunset
The Blacksmith Shop
Artisans and problem solvers, our blacksmiths always have an entertaining tale to tell
“Take it to the smiths for an emergency repair,” must have been a common statement each working day at Empire Mine Ore carts, stamp mills and other equipment needed frequent attention.
Our Blacksmith Shop today is much the same as it would have been around 1925
With its red-hot forges, anvils, and six blacksmiths on duty eight to ten hours a day, six days a week, the smithy was a vital part of the mine’s success. Five smiths worked in the shop, producing many of the tools, candle holders and other devices the miners needed in their work, while one worked down in the mine shoeing mules.
Today, visitors enjoy watching replica items being made on the spot – and available for purchase (both in the smithy and in the Visitors Center Gift Shop).
Tales of “the good old days,” as well as the legend of the dreaded Tommy Knocker, make the smithy a popular part of your visit to Empire Mine.
The Secret Room
You’re invited into the Secret Room to see our amazing scale model
When Empire Mine was operational, only management and their engineers were allowed into the “Secret Room.” Why?
Built in the 1930s, this private room, with its blacked-out windows, housed an accurate, intricate scale model of the mine’s below-the-surface workings. Few even knew that the room and model existed. Today, the model remains in pristine condition – complete with dramatic lighting and an interpretive recording.
Visitors can see over 367 miles of underground tunnels, covering five square miles. Most people are amazed when they see how vast the mine’s operations were, including activity beneath downtown Grass Valley. Later on your visit, you’ll have the chance to walk down the shaft, and that represents less than one inch on the model. Anything beyond two inches on the model has been under water since the pumps were turned off in 1956.
The Secret Room – with its fascinating mine model – is a highly recommended starting point, especially for first-time visitors. It’s also the best way to understand exactly how sophisticated the operations were … almost one vertical mile below the ground!
A High-Risk History of Vision, Innovation, and Old-Fashioned Hard Work
A high-risk history of vision, innovation and old-fashioned hard work
Empire Mine’s history began in 1850 when George Roberts found hard-rock gold in a quartz vein – more than a year after James Marshall discovered placer gold at Sutter’s Sawmill. Suddenly, Northern California was a magnet for those seeking wealth, new opportunities, and adventure. People from all walks of life and from all over the world flocked here for a piece of the action.
In 1851, Roberts sold his interest, and by 1869, new owner, San Francisco entrepreneur William Bowers Bourn, Sr., held the controlling interest. The Bourn Family retained ownership until 1929 when Empire Mine was purchased by the Newmont Mining Company for $250,000. Operations ceased in 1956. The stamp mills that once thundered 24 hours a day were silent, and its glory days became a memory.
In its heydays, Empire Mine produced 5.8 million ounces of gold, and it ranked as one of the largest, oldest and most prosperous mines in North American history.
Its purchase in 1975 by the State of California marked a new beginning for the historic site. Today it continues to lure visitors from all over the United States and all over the world. Empire Mine State Historic Park welcomes around 100,000 a year, as they discover what life was like in those days of gold, grit and glory. Its tours of Empire Cottage (the Bourns’ summer home), the Clubhouse, the gardens and the Mine Yard are fascinating. The Living History Programs, both in the Cottage and the Mine Yard, bring the past to life in a convincing, memorable way.
Today the mine is almost completely filled with water, however visitors can still look down the mine shaft portal to the 150-foot level. Empire Mine’s close to 850 acres are rich in history and beauty. At elevations of 2,500 to 2,900 feet, they cover a maze of 367 miles of deep mine shafts. Located in the western Sierra Nevada, 50 miles from Sacramento, Empire Mine State Historic Park remains rich in gold-mine history.
Empire Mine State Historic Park welcomes around 100,000 a year, as they discover what life was like in those days of gold, grit and glory.
Key dates in Empire Mine’s unique history
William Bowers Bourn, Sr. purchased controlling interest of Empire Mine
The shaft at Empire Mine reached down to the 1,250 foot level, with 7,900 feet of drifts
William Bowers Bourn, Sr. died in San Francisco
William Bowers Bourn, Jr. went to England to attended Cambridge University
William Bourn, Jr. formed the Original Empire Mill and Mining Company
Bowers’ cousin, George Starr, began working at Empire as a mucker
William Bourn, Jr. formed the Grass Valley Water Company to bring water to theEmpire and North Star Mines
The main power source was changed from steam to water, using Pelton
George Starr installed compressed air-powered drills for development work
George Starr moved to South Africa to supervise a gold mine
Famous San Francisco architect Willis Polk designed and constructed Empire Cottage and the grounds for the Bourns
George Starr returned to Empire as mine superintendant
Mules were introduced to the mine
Katy Moriarty arrived to be the housekeeper at Empire Cottage
George Starr’s reconstruction of the mine was completed, and reached depths exceeding the 3,000 foot level
Willis Polk designed and constructed the prestigious Clubhouse
William Bourn, Jr. sold Empire Mine to Newmont Mining Company for $250,000
The stamp mill at Empire was increased to 80 stamps
The greatest depth on the incline was achieved in the North Star shaft at 11,007 feet
Newmont held an auction to sell the contents of many of the buildings and materials
The State of California purchased the surface property of the Empire Mine from Newmont Mining Company for $1,250,000
Traditional placer mining methods that depended on using water to wash gold deposits from the sand or gravel of stream beds did not work in the Grass Valley area. Instead, miners used “hard-rock” mining methods. Men in buckets were lowered into deep shafts (coyote holes), resembling water wells to chip and drill through the rock. After filling the drill holes with black powder, they detonated it, loaded the blasted rock into ore cars and took it to the mine headframe for primary crushing.
At the stamp mill, the crushed ore, mixed with water, was washed cross copper plates coated with mercury. The mercury combined with “free” gold to form an amalgam. Water washed away any impurities, and the cleaned amalgam went to the refinery for further processing.
In 1905, Empire adopted a more efficient mining method. In this process, cyanide was used to dissolve gold while it was embedded in the quartz. The gold could then be leached out of the quartz ore in a liquid form. The cyanide method is still in use around the world.
Until mules were introduced, miners moved the ore-laden cars manually. Known as one of the most efficient gold mines in the U.S., Empire counted the use of mules to pull ore cars as one of its greatest innovations. The mules lived in underground stables until they became too old to work.
Empire Mine did not begin to prosper until 1869, when William Bowers Bourn, Sr. acquired the controlling interest. Production dropped in 1874, followed by Mr. Bourn’s sudden death that same year.
William Bowers Bourn, Jr.
In 1879, 22-year-old William Bowers Bourn, Jr., took over management of the mine to keep it from closing. Fortunately, he as able to bring the mine back to profit. He was later able to push several mine shafts past the 1,200-foot level that had been considered the maximum depth.
He commissioned famed San Francisco architect Willis Polk (who had designed the Bourns’ Webster Street mansion in San Francisco) to design the mine managers’ complex, Empire Cottage, the magnificent gardens, and the Clubhouse, where the Bourns entertained their prestigious guests.
George W. Starr
William bourn, Jr. had a talented, 19-year-old cousin named George W. Starr who began working at the mine in 1881. He started his career at a mucker, loading rocks and ore into cars. By 1887, he was the mine’s superintendent. In 1893, Starr, considered to be a mining genius, left to work in South Africa’s gold mines. When Starr visited San Francisco a few years later, Bourn convinced him to return to Empire Mine, where Starr remained for another 30 years.
Agnes Moody Bourn
In 1881 William married Agnes Moody in New York. The Bourn and Moody families were friends. Mrs. Bourn was actively involved in the development of the grounds and rose gardens at Empire Cottage. She and Mr. Bourn were patrons of the San Francisco Symphony and Operas. They often entertained friends and acquaintances by having famous musicians play in their homes. Mrs. Bourn played the piano. She and Mr. Bourn had one daughter, Maud.
Born in New York State in 1866, she married Empire Mine’s superintendent, George Starr in 1886. The Starrs had two children, William and Dorothy. Libby played an active role in the Grass Valley community, and in 1915, she and close friend Grace Clinch formed the Empire Country Club. Members met for games, dining and dancing in the stately clubhouse.
Born in Ohio in 1865, Katy moved to California in 1888 with her brother and sister. She worked as a housekeeper in the Bourns’ prestigious San Francisco home on Webster Street. In 1900 she went to Empire Cottage in Grass Valley where she served as caretaker and housekeeper until she retired in 1934. She was reputed to have run the Cottage like clockwork – and often supplied the local orphanage with home-baked cookies.
End of a golden era
Empire Mine closed during World War 11 when many miners enlisted. In 1945 the mine reopened, but gold remained at its 1934 price of $35 per troy ounce. Unfortunately, it cost more to bring the gold to the surface than it was worth. However, mining efforts continued for another decade. In 1956, when its doors closed forever, it had produced nearly six million troy ounces of gold – a true bonanza!
Gold deposits of the Grass Valley mining district occur in quartz veins, deep underground. Granite bodies called plutons were formed when molten rock (magma) slowly cooled below the surface of the earth. During the final stages of cooling, liquids with dissolved silica and gold pushed their way into the fractures, shear zones and fault lines of older rocks and hardened, forming the solid veins of gold found in quartz.
These geologic actions, happening miles below the surface of the ancestral Sierra Nevada, were later uplifted and revealed by tectonic movement.
Related places of interest
The Filoli Mansion, Woodside, California
Following San Francisco’s catastrophic 1906 earthquake and fire, the Bourns built their magnificent 43-room mansion, Filoli (an acronym for Fight, Love, Live) in Woodside, 30 miles south of San Francisco. With its famous gardens on 600 acres, you can read about Filoli here.
The Muckross House, County Kerry, Ireland
William Bowers Bourn, Jr. and his wife, Sarah, had only one child, Maud. Maud married Arthur Rose Vincent of County Clare, Ireland. Her father purchased the magnificent Muckross property in Killarney, County Kerry, as a wedding present. Today Muckross House, Gardens and Traditional Farms is a National Park. You can read about Muckross House here.
These fascinating, historic accounts of our gold-mine history are sold in our Gift Shop
- Tears From the Sun A Story of Gold video-Stanley H. Halls
- Hydraulic Gold Mining video-California State Parks
- Hard Rock Gold Mining video-California State Parks
- What’s So Great About Granite?-Jennifer H. Miller
- Rocks & Minerals Facts at Your Fingertips-Pocket Genius
- Rocks, Fossils, & Arrowheads-Laura Evert
- California Rocks! A Guide to Geologic Sites in the Golden State-Katherine J. Baylor
- California Underground adventures-Jon Kramer & Julie Martinez
- Geologic Trips-Ted Konigsmark
- The Gold Rush-Bobbie Kalman
- Dig Into Rocks Minerals & Crystals-GeoCentral Children’s book
- Life of a Minor-Bobbie Kalman
- The Blacksmith-Bobbie Kalman
- History of the Empire Mine-Charles A.Bohakel
- Local History Makes Good News!-Robert M. Wyckoff
- Hiking the Sierra Nevada-Barry Parr
- Discover California Gold! Country-coloring book
- California Geography The Golden State-Randy L. Womack, M. Ed.
- California Atlas-California Geography Associates
- The Cyanide Plant More Gold from the Same Ore-Roger P. Lescohier
- Lester Pelton & the Pelton Water Wheel-Roger P. Lescohier
- The Stamp Mill for Recovery of Gold from Hard Rock-Roger P. Lescohier
- The Cornish Pump in the California Gold Mines-Roger P. Lescohier
- Gold: The Saga of the Empire Mine 1850-1956-F.W. McQuiston, Jr.
- Gold Giants of Grass Valley-Roger Lescohier
- The River-Hank Meals
- Walking Tours & twice-told Tales of Grass Valley-Robert M. Wyckoff
- Sierra Stories-Gary Noy
- Ghost Hunter’s Guide to California’s Gold Rush Country-Jeff Dwyer
- Where to Find Gold in Northern California-James Klein
- Exploring Nevada County-Nevada County Historical Landmarks Commission
- Images of America Gold Rush Towns of Nevada County-Maria E. Browser
- Images of America Grass Valley-Claudine Chalmers
- The Bourn Dynasty-Charles C. Steinfeld
- Soiled Doves Prostitution In The Early West-Anne Seagraves
- With Great Hope women of California Gold Rush-JoAnn Chartier & Chris Enss
- The Shirley Letters-Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe
- Highly Respectable Families-Shirley Ewart with Harold T. George
- Last Bonanza Kings The Bourns of San Francisco-Ferol Egan
- The World Rushed In-J.S. Holliday
- The Golden Corridor-Jody & Ric Horner
- The Golden Highway 49, Vol 1 North-Jody & Ric Horner