Mining My History

When I was a kid I was fascinated with Virginia City, Nevada. I loved the hills, the old buildings, the wooden sidewalks, the sweet shop, the sarsaparilla, the jewelry stores, the history of gold miners, pretty much everything except the dirt and heat.

During one visit I talked my grandparents into buying me a chance to pan for gold in a pre-set tourist trough. I lost interest pretty quickly as I didn’t have the patience to twirl and sift and rinse over and over again in the hopes of taking home a few tiny specks of gold dust.

t wasn’t until decades later that I learned about my maternal great, great, great, great-grandfather’s journey from Massachusetts to California to join the gold rush of 1849. Grandpa Henry did quite well and owned several pocket mines (large quantities of gold found in quartz).

This week I discovered that my paternal grandparents were involved in mining as well, but in the 20th century. My grandpa Bernie worked for the Idaho-Maryland Mine in Grass Valley, California. Unlike Grandpa Henry, Grandpa Bernie was a worker, not an owner, so neither he nor his family’s fortunes were made from the mines; I suspect that he barely made a living.

Idaho-Maryland Mine Grass Valley, California

The mines has been closed for decades, but there is a movement to reopen the Idaho-Maryland as there is apparently a lot of gold left to harvest. This is a very controversial idea in the area for lots of reasons.

I visited the Empire Mine, and saw the giant Ferris wheel like structure, the Pelton Wheel, that moved the water needed for the mining operations. When he was a kid, my uncle and his cousins used to climb on the wheel to make it turn. This was long before the county took over, covered and surrounded the wheel with a museum.

My uncle (for scale) and the Pelton wheel

The mining history from both sides of my family makes a lot of sense given how long my family has lived in the state, but I do wish that I had had some sense of this when I was a kid in school learning about California history. If so, I might have retained more of the lessons.

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