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
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
Empire Mine State Historic 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.
Gold Mining Historic Markers
- Gold Quartz Discovery Site. This is where George McKnight discovered gold in Grass Valley in October, 1850 and where California quartz gold mining began. Jenkins Street and Hocking Avenue.
- Hardrock Gold Mining. An estimated $500 million in gold has been mined within a one-mile radius of this historic marker. Near the creek in Memorial Park.
- Red Ledge Stamp Mill. This three-stamp mill was donated to the city of Grass Valley by the Red Ledge Mine near the little town of Washington. It was dedicated in honor of the “Cousin Jack” Cornish miners who came to Grass Valley. Corner of Main and Auburn streets
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.
Gold Mining Historic Markers
- National Landmark Town. This marker, dedicated in 1985 when the city was named to the National Register of Historic Places, recognizes Nevada City “as the largest and best-preserved historical downtown district in California Gold Country.” Located in Calanan Park at Union and Broad streets in Nevada City.
- Ott’s Assay Office. An assay performed here by J. J. Ott in 1859 led to the famous Comstock Lode in the state of Nevada. A national and Nevada County landmark. Located at the foot of Main Street in Nevada City.
- Pelton Wheel and Five-Stamp Mill. The mill was built in 1893 and used to crush ore at the Fortuna Mine. The Pelton Wheel was used in the Pacific Gas & Electric Drum Division from 1928-1987 and donated by PG&E to Nevada City in 1987. Located at the foot of Main Street.
- Calanan Park Monitor and Drill Core. This hydraulic mining monitor used pressurized water to wash away hillsides in the quest for gold. The shaft drill core represents hardrock mining. It came from Grass Valley’s Idaho-Maryland mine in the 1930s. Located in Calanan Park.
Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park
How To Pan For Gold
Text credit: Dave Carter, Joint Chambers of Commerce of Nevada County; photos: Nevada County Historical Society, Nevada County Economic Resource Council