Blog California

The Bourn family’s embarrassingly small summer home

February 3, 2022

Since writers’ websites mostly just exist as a form of self-promotion, I’m going to tell you all one more time about my recent story in Undark … which also got picked up by The Atlantic and Popular Science. I’ve been trying to maintain my writerly cool, but you know, it’s hard.

Anyway, gold mining has been on my mind for obvious reasons, so today I’m just going to do a short post about one of my favorite Grass Valley spots: Empire Mine State Historic Park. It’s a beautiful, former gold mining estate with loads of hiking trails, if you don’t mind all the arsenic dust (just kidding, they fixed that). For a small fee, you can go onto the grounds and see the obnoxiously named Bourn “Cottage,” which is made out of granite and is like 4,600 square feet. I’m not really sure how many square feet it would have to be to before it would qualify as a “modest-sized house,” but I guess when you’re fabulously wealthy you like to brag about it by telling people that your 4,600 square foot summer home is but a mere cottage, you know, compared to wherever it is you live the rest of the year.

This is what passes for a cottage when you have more money than you know what to do with.

The best part about the Empire Mine is not the stupid “cottage” but the mine shaft. Most of the old tunnels are flooded, but you can still look down the first 150 feet or so of the mine shaft, which is just a very small part of the 11,000-foot incline that stops a full mile under the surface.

The entire underground maze of mine shafts goes on for 367 miles, which is pretty mind-boggling to think about. Happily, this area was all hard rock mining otherwise the entire town of Grass Valley would be a sinkhole, and we all know how I feel about sinkholes.

It’s not the best photo I’ve ever taken, but it does give you an idea about just how long the mineshaft is. You’re just looking at the first one percent.

The Empire Mine closed in 1956, the same year as the Idaho-Maryland Mine, which I wrote about in my Undark story. The difference is that the Empire Mine became a state park, so no one is going to go looking for gold in those old flooded tunnels any time soon.