Visit Gold Country
By the mid-1850s, an estimated 120,000 miners were at work in California. For the most part, prospectors found little romance in the Gold Rush; mining was hard, dirty work. Prices were high, living conditions bad. Few miners struck it rich and most of the profits went to merchants and suppliers.
By 1873, the number of California miners had dwindled to 30,000. Mining was becoming more of a business, less of an adventure. Wealthy mine owners built large hardrock and hydraulic mines that employed hundreds of men.
The rich underground mines of Grass Valley made it the richest mining community in California. Even during the Depression of the 1930s, Grass Valley thrived because of its mining-based economy.
The business districts and Victorian neighborhoods of Grass Valley and Nevada City grew from this early mining heritage, and these historical treasures are carefully protected today.
Grass Valley and Nevada City offer a range of gold mining history unequalled elsewhere in the Gold Country. All of the different mining techniques are explained and there are numerous exhibits of mining gear and memorabilia. And if you’d like to try your hand at recreational gold panning, you can still find color in Nevada County rivers.
•North Star Mining Museum and Pelton Wheel Exhibit
California’s first river corridor state park stretches for 20 miles from Bridgeport to the north of Penn Valley to Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park northeast of Nevada City.
Operated by the Nevada County Historical Society, this museum (California Historic Landmark No. 843) has been recognized as the most complete hardrock mining museum in California.
The museum is located in an 1895 stone building, once the powerhouse for the North Star Mine. Outside is a small creekside park for picnics and relaxation.
Attractions include a 30-foot Pelton Wheel, the world’s largest, built by A.D. Foote in 1895, a Man Skip that carried miners down into the mines and a Cornish Pump that was used to remove water from mine shafts. An assay room, blacksmith shop, stamp mill and dynamite-packing machine are among the numerous exhibits.
Located at the end of Mill Street, near McCourtney and Allison Ranch roads, the museum is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 1 through Oct. 15 and by special appointment. There is no admission charge; donations are welcome.
For information, call (530) 273-4255 or visit the museum’s website.
•Empire Mine State Park
This 800-acre state park tells the story of hardrock gold mining. Hardrock miners worked in vertical or inclined shafts deep beneath the earth’s surface. Gold was found in drifts or “shoots” of quartz.
The Empire Mine operated from 1850-1956, producing some 5.8 million ounces of gold from 367 miles of underground shafts.
Visitors may look down and explore parts of the main shaft of the richest gold mine in California history, tour the mine yard and buildings and stroll the formal gardens surrounding the impressive stone home where the wealthy mine owner once lived.
The State of California purchased the Empire Mine properties in 1975 for $1.2 million. The park has since been undergoing a gradual restoration with an emphasis on preserving the mine’s historic integrity.
Tours and mining movies are offered by park rangers (call for schedules) and Living History Days are hosted regularly by the volunteer Empire Mine Park Association.
Open daily, the park is located at 10791 East Empire Street in Grass Valley, one mile southeast of the Golden Center Freeway. For information, call (530) 273-8522 or visit the park’s website.
Today, Miners Foundry Cultural Center is a community and performing arts center, hosting more than 200 events per year. Its stone walls and massive timbers provide a unique and historic setting.
The foundry dates to 1856 and for many years provided metal and steel fabrication for the local mines. The first Pelton Wheel, a Nevada County invention which revolutionized hydroelectric power production, was built at the foundry in 1879.
In its earliest days the foundry was known as the Nevada Iron and Brass Foundry and Machine Shop. It became known as Miners Foundry in 1907 and operated until 1965. From 1974 to 1989, the foundry was home to the American Victorian Museum.
Guests may enjoy historic artifacts exhibited throughout the foundry. Many of the displays are described in a printed self-guided tour to the foundry available at the entry. Miners Foundry is located at 325 Spring Street in Nevada City. For information on exhibits and programs call (530) 265-5040 or visit the historic building’s website.
Firehouse No. 1 is perhaps the most-photographed building in Nevada City. It was built in 1861 to house Nevada Hose Company No. 1 and has been a museum since 1947.
The museum, operated by the Nevada County Historical Society, offers a limited look at mining and more extensive relics of the Donner Party, Nisenan and Maidu Indians, pioneer clothing and furnishings, and a complete altar from a Chinese Joss House (temple) that was at one time located in Grass Valley’s Chinatown.
Located at 214 Main Street, the Firehouse Museum is open daily, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the summer. For winter hours and other information, call (530) 265-5468 or visit the museum’s website.
•Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park
This 3,000-acre state historic park tells the story of hydraulic gold mining. Gold was discovered here in 1851, hydraulic mining began about 1853 and lasted until 1884.
Hydraulickers used highly-pressurized water to move an estimated 41 million cubic yards of earth, leaving an open pit more than a mile long and 600 feet deep. The stark walls of Malakoff Diggins stand in memory of hydraulic mining.
Major water systems, including reservoirs and flumes, were constructed by mining companies to bring water to the hydraulic diggings, and many of these systems are used today to supply water to local communities.
In the 1860s and 1870s, hydraulic mine tailings clogged streams and rivers, destroyed farmlands and caused flooding in the valley. After a lengthy legal battle, the hydraulic era ended Jan. 7, 1884 when Judge Lorenzo Sawyer issued a permanent injunction against dumping mine tailings into the Yuba River.
Today, visitors can inspect the diggins and the restored Gold Rush village of North Bloomfield at the center of the park. The town offers a museum and numerous mining exhibits. There are campfire programs and guided history walks in summer. The park includes a wooded 30-site campground, several walk-in camp sites and a group camp.
Malakoff Diggins is open daily year around (except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day). The museum is open 10-4 daily in the summer and 11-4 weekends after Labor Day until Memorial Day. Call ahead for town tour times and other information, (530) 265-2740 or visit the park’s website.
— Joint Chambers of Commerce of Nevada County