Grass Valley

Grass Valley


Elevation: 2,500 feet


Some Favorites From Our Expeditions

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    Pay a visit to the downstairs bathroom at the Holbrooke Hotel to see where the mineshafts once led right inside. Or head upstairs to see presidential signatures from an early guestbook.

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    Get a feel for how tough it was to survive the Gold Rush by taking a look at Mount Saint Mary’s Academy, once a huge orphanage to house kids who lost their parents to mining accidents and other Sierra dangers.

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    Peer down a mine shaft extending DEEP into the earth at Empire Mine State Historic Park and then take a ramble around the pool and gardens outside Bourn’s “cottage,” really a very fancy house. Be glad you don’t have to listen to the deafening pounding that kept the Bourns from using it much.

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    Eat a pasty. It’s a Grass Valley specialty thanks to the Cornish miners who brought their underground expertise to the Empire Mine.

Hard Rock Mining in the Sierra

Think of the Gold Rush and many conjure images of men in rivers, sifting through the sediment in their pans. And that’s accurate — in the first two years, mining was largely a simple enterprise with small-time operators. Of course, there were lots of them, and they made quick work of gathering up what was easily accessible.

But a new era that would reinvigorate things and reposition mining as a major industry was born in Grass Valley, and it would become the richest town in Gold Country in terms of its gold production. It was on its Gold Hill in October 1850 that one of the first discoveries of quartz gold was made by George Roberts. Gold-laden quartz veins were the source of the flakes and nuggets that washed into the rivers and miners’ pans, and attention soon shifted to the rocky source versus the placer deposits that had managed to break free on their own.

This type of mining would require more complex processes, which meant the rise of corporations that could fund them. The age of big mines had begun.

Empire: The Grand Daddy Mine

There would be several hard rock mines around Grass Valley, including large ones like Idaho-Maryland and North Star. But Empire was the most major. It produced millions of ounces of gold — an amount that would fetch $8 billion by modern standards. The mine took root after Roberts and others like him who were trying to tap into Grass Valley’s below-ground riches found it simply too difficult to pry the gold free using the basic techniques they knew. They would soon sell their claims to a group that would establish their consolidated operation with the name Empire Mine.

The Bourne Dynasty

The man who led the Empire to its early success was William Bourn, a successful businessman who assumed control in 1869. He would die somewhat mysteriously five years later of a gunshot wound in his San Francisco mansion that was said to be accidental. A few years later, his young son would take charge at a time when others thought the Empire’s best days had passed. The mine’s tunnels had gone 1,200 feet into the ground, the gold between there and the surface had been taken out, and the engineers believed that going any deeper wouldn’t be worth the difficulty and resulting expense.

But William Bourn Jr. and his cousin George Starr would lead the mine to its greatest success. The younger Bourn was barely into his twenties and Starr was still a teenager when he started. But under their leadership, Empire’s mining operations did indeed venture deeper to find more gold, new techniques were utilized that would make the job of removing it easier, and the mine became a real money-maker.

Empire Innovations & The Underground Life of Miner Mules

Starr became superintendent in just a few years, guiding many advances in how the Empire mined. In the early days, workers here were lowered into the deep labyrinth in a contraption that looked like a toboggan and carried 20 at a time. After the wild ride, they chipped or drilled to make room for explosive powder that would blast the rock, and then carted it above ground so that it could be crushed and further processed at the stamp mill and refinery.

But several advances were implemented over the years, including mules to pull the ore cars. They never saw the light of day, lived in underground barns and were given chewing tobacco as a treat. The mining itself also became more efficient. Dynamite eventually replaced gun powder as the means to blast rock, and chisels were swapped for drills to make the holes where explosives were placed. Later, cyanide was used to extract the gold from the quartz.

The mine eventually extended more than 11,000 feet into the ground and the tunnels would have stretched 367 miles if they were connected end to end. To keep track of that growing web and the places within them that had yielded the most gold, a scale model was made of the entire operation. It was kept in a secret room with blacked-out windows so that only a few high-ranking Empire executives would know of its existence.

Mining Experts: Bring on the Cornish

A critical element in the success of Grass Valley’s mines were the Cornish miners who came to California for gold. Miners in Cornwall, England, had long been engaged in hard-rock mining, seeking tin, copper and other minerals. That expertise would prove invaluable in Grass Valley.

One of their most important contributions at the Empire Mine was the Cornish Pump, which solved a major problem. As the mine shafts extended deeper and deeper into the ground, they would reach the water table and begin flooding. The Cornish Pump was a savior, proving highly efficient in removing the water so work could continue and the operation could expand.

Cornish Talk & Cornish Eats: Pasties Become the Signature Dish

By the 1890s a majority of Grass Valley’s population was Cornish, and their culture became deeply ingrained in the town. The immigrants from Cornwall proved to be great recruiters for additional labor in the mines, often recommending family from back home. The story goes that when a new opening came up, the miners always seemed to have a “Cousin Jack” who would gladly take it — or a “Cousin Jenny” if the opportunity was right. Both phrases eventually became popular nicknames for the Cornish.

Another of their contributions was culinary. Pasties are savory pies filled with meat, potatoes and other ingredients, and they were a portable favorite for taking into the mines. They’re still served at various Grass Valley restaurants.

Mining Superstitions: Redheads, Whistling, Jabberwocks & Tommyknockers

The Cornish also held several superstitions related to the mines. Many thought it bad luck if a woman — especially a redhead — ventured underground. No good would come from whistling either.

There were various creatures to contend with as well. According to Cornish lore, the subterranean realm in the mines could hold jabberwocks (gremlins) and Tommyknockers (elves, said to be about two feet tall and dressed in traditional miner garb).

The Tommyknockers came in two sorts: friendly ones who offered help, protection and warnings about impending dangers, and troublemakers who would hide tools, blow out candles and bother the mules when they were trying to rest. (All-night parties were apparently a favorite way to taunt them.) Many miners believed that they could hear the Tommyknockers tapping away as they did their own work in the mines. To stay in the good graces of their smaller fellow workers, it wasn’t uncommon to leave some sort of offering. A bit of pasty was a popular choice.

End of an Era

The Empire Mine would operate for more than 100 years before finally closing in 1956. The Bourns would retain control of it until 1929. That year, it would be combined with the North Star Mine and sold to Newmont Mining. Its operations would continue — with a break during World War II when workers left to fight — but the Empire would close for good in 1956.

In 1975, it became a state park. Visitors can peer into the mine shaft and see the model that was once kept in the secret room. Most of what’s represented is now underwater. The tunnels soon flooded after the mine closed and the pumping stopped.

Bourn’s Buildings

Bourn Jr. used the fortune produced by the Empire Mine to commission grand homes and an iconic winery (Greystone Winery, the massive stone building in St. Helena that now serves as headquarters for the Culinary Institute of America).

The grand English-style manor house on the Empire Mine’s grounds was the Bourn family summer home and is referred to as Bourn Cottage, despite being a mansion in its own right. The stone structure is made of waste rock from the mine and surrounded by gardens. As beautiful as it is, the Bourns only used it a few weeks per year. The constant racket from the nearby mine was apparently the reason. And it never let up – the mines around Grass Valley operated around the clock and closed only one day per year for an annual Miners Picnic.

The cottage is the work of famed architect Willis Polk, who also designed a grand mansion for Bourn in San Francisco. His house in the city still stands in Pacific Heights. After it left Bourn family ownership, the brick house gained a degree of notoriety in the 1970s for riotous parties attended by the likes of the Rolling Stones and various celebrities. Pornographic films were also apparently shot there.

Besides the cottage in Grass Valley, Polk also designed a more tranquil summer home for the family in Woodside, CA, near the Santa Cruz mountains.

Lola Montez: Entertainer, Eccentric, Bear Keeper

As the mining industry grew so too did others that supported it – in various ways. Many who opened shops found greater financial rewards selling their wares to miners than they would have had they tried mining themselves. The miners needed entertainment too — saloons were plentiful in boomtowns. But other diversions also emerged.

Lola Montez was a dancer and singer known internationally before she settled in Grass Valley in 1854. Though Irish, she invented a persona as a Spanish dancer and the illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron. She also earned a reputation for a fiery temper and wild living. Her many affairs included a dalliance with Bavaria’s King Ludwig, who drew ire after making her a Countess. (It bears pointing out that Lola’s paramour was the first King Ludwig, not his son King Ludwig II — though he may have been a good match for her, too. He was called “Mad King Ludwig” by some and known for commissioning beautiful castles like the one that inspired Princess Aurora’s home in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.)

Montez was renowned for her erotic Spider Dance, during which she would pretend that spiders had crawled into her clothes. As she gyrated, she would shake free faux creepy-crawlies that were sewn into her costume — and also flash the audience.

Newly married when she arrived in Grass Valley, Montez would divorce soon after but stay on for two years in a small house that served as a sort of salon for her frequent entertaining. She led a somewhat tamer existence there compared to her former life and was active in the community. But she also remained an eccentric, smoking cigars and keeping a tamed Grizzly bear as a pet. The popular song “Whatever Lola Wants” from the musical Damn Yankees is said to have been inspired by her.

Lotta Crabtree: Lola’s Tiny Protégé

While in Grass Valley, Montez took on a mentoring role for another who entertained at the mining camps. Her neighbor Lotta Crabtree was the Gold Rush Shirley Temple. And though the little girl’s musical act was a world apart from the Spider Dance, Montez is said to have provided some coaching. The racy older dancer also may have taught the youngster some bad habits. A bit later in  Crabtree’s life, one of her trademarks was puffing on thin, black cigars.

Crabtree would go on to become a sensation. Her career lasted 40 years and made her a millionaire, while Montez would be living in New York penniless when she succumbed to pneumonia in her early forties.

The Holbrooke: A Hotel That’s Seen It All

As the tunnels under Grass Valley expanded, so did the town above it. Along with neighboring Nevada City, this is perhaps some of the best-preserved Gold Country. The Holbrooke Hotel has been part of Grass Valley since its early days, with a history that goes back to 1851. The Golden Gate Saloon was one of the town’s first businesses. After an 1855 fire destroyed it (and most of Grass Valley’s other buildings), the popular watering hole was rebuilt with more fire-resistant stone. A hotel was added in 1862, also built to withstand fire by including features like its heavy iron door. It was called the Exchange Hotel and after a change in ownership became the Holbrooke in 1879.

Lola Montez and Lotta Crabtree were frequent visitors, as was Mark Twain. The hotel has also played host to presidents. One of its earliest guest books — which is on display on the second floor — has the signatures of Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland. And lots of miners came, too. Shafts led directly to the saloon on the bottom floor, and today you can see where these below-ground entrances were situated when paying a visit to the Holbrooke restrooms.

More recently, the Holbrooke became even better-preserved. It was featured on the television show Hotel Impossible, which helps lodging operators revamp their properties. Honoring the Holbrooke’s Gold Rush legacy was a key focus.

Mount Saint Mary’s: The Haven for Nuns & Orphans

Another of Grass Valley’s most eye-catching structures is Mount St. Mary’s Convent and Orphan Asylum. It was built in 1865, and the original plan was that the sisters would run a school. But another purpose soon became apparent. Gold Country was a dangerous land with many dangerous jobs, mining being among the riskiest. That left Grass Valley with a fair number of orphans, and Mount St. Mary’s would take them in. The vast structure included dormitories for them, sleeping quarters for the nuns, classrooms and everything else required to provide good care for those who had lost parents. Overcrowding would be one of its chief challenges. The orphans are long gone — since the 1950s — and the last nuns departed in 2001. Today the site is a cultural center; the Grass Valley Museum is housed there.

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