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Early Mining History of Grass Valley, California

Downtown Grass Valley, California. c. 1889

Downtown Grass Valley, California. c. 1889

The discovery of the wealth buried in the hills and valleys of Grass Valley, California, is said to come from story of one lost cow. A legend has it that a miner discovered the gold in Grass Valley while searching for his lost cow. While searching for his animal, he stubbed his toe, dislodging a large rock and exposing gold underneath. Later it is said that another miner was searching for stones with which to construct a chimney when he discovered gold quartz in the area. No matter how the town received its name, the gold and immense wealth that exists in that land led Grass Valley to become one of the more well-known and prosperous mining towns in United States history.

Grass Valley was not always the name of this prosperous mining town. Grass Valley’s name is said to come from the settler’s cattle that wandered from their campsite on Greenhorn Creek to a nearby “grassy valley” where the grazing was better. Later, that “grassy valley” would prove to be a preferable place to set up buildings for the town. With the opening of a town store, the “grassy valley” became known as Boston Ravine. The name later changed to Centerville and eventually became Grass Valley, which is what it is known to this very day.


Grass Valley Takes Off


Grass Valley soon became a booming trading center. Growth took off in the Nevada County area where Grass Lake was located, and by 1851, thousands of people had migrated to Grass Valley and the nearby town of Nevada, now known as Nevada City. The first official town election was held in 1850, and in 1860, the town of Grass Valley incorporated. Mining and logging were by far the mainstays of Nevada County’s economy. Grass Valley was literally circled by mines running 24/7, 365 days per year.

However, the history of town was not without its rough times. In 1855, Grass Valley was struck by a disastrous fire, just two years following a separate fire that destroyed much of neighboring town, Nevada City. The damages were tough but both towns managed to recover and grow from those tragedies.

Where is Grass Valley, California

Grass Valley quickly became one of the western mining towns known across the world. Many of the miners flocking to the town came from Cornwall and Ireland. These individuals were drawn to the California gold fields because they possessed the same skills needed for deep tin mining. These skills specifically related to pumping water out of the very deep mining shafts. These travelers from Cornwall, England, otherwise known as the “Cousin Jacks and Jennys” came to the area following the disastrous fall in tin prices. By 1890, it is estimated that over 60 percent of the Grass Valley population was Cornish.

The population of Grass Valley would fluctuate throughout the second half of the 19th Century, but as the end of the Century neared, the population stabilized as families became more established and the town center grew. Soon other businesses came to the community, bringing with them other settlers who were Italian, Chinese, Native American and African American. Eventually Grass Valley became widely known as a “working man’s town.”

Also Read: American River: The Start of the Gold Rush


Major Gold Mines of Grass Valley


The Idaho-Maryland Mine was one of the largest in Grass Valley, with millions of dollars in gold discovered.

The Idaho-Maryland Mine was one of the largest in Grass Valley, with millions of dollars in gold discovered.

Grass Valley is the location of two famous mines during the Gold Rush, the Empire Mine and North Star Mine. These two mines are known to be two of the richest mines in the State of California. Over the 100 years mining existed in the area, the mines in Nevada County extracted over $400 million in gold making Grass Valley the most prosperous mining town in California.

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Out of this 400 million, over 150 million dollars of this gold was mined from Grass Valley’s two mines, the Empire Mine and North Star Mine. The Empire Mine lays claim to being the largest mine in the State of California.

The Idaho-Maryland was another massive underground mine in Grass Valley. This mine produced some of the richest high-grade gold ore in the entire country. This mine had great longevity as well, operating from 1865 off and on through the start of World War 2. Even today, considerable assessment work is being done on this property for potential mining to continue at this mine.


A Stable Mining Community


grassvalleyempiremineMining and logging were by far the mainstays of Nevada County’s economy. Grass Valley was literally circled by mines running 24/7, 365 days per year.

Grass Valley stands out among other mining towns for the length time during which business boomed. Whereas many mining towns only lasted for a handful of decades, mining existed in this area for over 100 years. That is no small feat for a “Gold Rush” town.

Mining in Grass Valley stayed strong throughout the Great Depression and in through the start of World War II. The mines stood out from others in the west because of their resiliency during the depression period. However, like many other mining towns, operations stopped temporarily during World War II as mining efforts went towards finding other precious metals and stones to go towards war efforts. They never quite recovered from that hit.

Gold mining took a sharp decline in the 1950s, ultimately resulting in all hard-rock mines closing.

Both the North Star and Empire Mines closed in 1956. They remain open as a park and museum open to the public. However, the town of Grass Valley is still believed to have millions of dollars in riches in its mines. Only time will tell if those riches will be discovered.

Also Read: Gold Mining on the Yuba River in California

And: 3 Old Ghost Towns you Must Visit in California

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