Written by Holly Holbrook
Grass Valley, California, located on Highway 49 in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, holds many warm memories for me. My cousins grew up in the town, and my sister moved there after landing her first job as a radiological technician back in 1978. So it’s a place I’ve visited for as long as I can remember, and I lived there myself one summer between college semesters in 1980.
Grass Valley sprang up during the gold rush as did many other towns in the Sierra foothills. The downtown retains much of the historic charm of those Old West days. The economic engine of the town was the Empire Mine, an enormous hard rock mine which occupies 5 square miles under the town, and reaches depths of almost a mile. This was an active and very profitable gold mine which operated just over 100 years, from 1850 to 1956, and many of the miners were immigrants who brought mining skills from their homelands. The Empire mine in particular employed a large population of Cornish miners. They brought technology in the form of the Cornish engine which operated on steam and enabled the removal of water from the deep tunnels of this mine. Mules were used to haul the ore carts, and the mules lived in underground barns until they became too old to work.
By 1879 the mine came under the management of William Bowers Bourn, Jr., a San Francisco native who was responsible for many of the improvements in the operations of the mine. Bourn Jr. and his wife, Agnes Moody, commissioned Willis Polk to build the “cottage” using rock from the mine. This also included gardens, fountains, and a reflecting pool. A clubhouse was added later on. The Bourns had used the same architect to build their Filoli estate just south of San Francisco.
The Empire Mine is just down the road from where my aunt and uncle and cousins used to live. It was restored and made into a state historic park in 1975 but before that we used to ride our bikes over there and just wander around the grounds. Now it is wonderfully restored. Molly and I enjoyed visiting the various exhibits, beautiful buildings and grounds. Many of the buildings used in the mining operations have been restored, and volunteers were working in the blacksmith shop. We capped it off with a short hike through the pines following one of several trails accessed from the parking lot.
In addition to their mining skills, the Cornish miners also brought the pastie, a cherished food from Cornwall consisting of a turnover typically containing meat, potatoes, and onions. This continues to be a popular food in Grass Valley. We visited Cousin Jack’s Pasties in downtown Grass Valley to sample the goods (they also have homemade pie and scones with clotted cream, yum!).
We stayed the night at the historic Holbrooke Hotel, which is the oldest hotel in continuous operation in the California mother lode, established in 1862. This place brings back a lot of memories as I worked part of a summer bussing tables there until I was able to get hired on at a pear packing shed in Marysville. I spent the remainder of the summer driving an hour each way from Grass Valley to Marysville with a couple other young people looking to earn some money working ten hour days six days a week. It beat bussing tables, in my opinion. In any case, the Holbrooke claims to have had many famous guests over the years including Lotta Crabtree, Jack London, Grover Cleveland, James Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, and Lola Montez, who made her home in Grass Valley in 1853. Her home (actually a replica) still exists as a museum on Mill St. in Grass Valley.
Modern day Grass Valley has never been known for its night life, but we found a great tap room called 151 Union Square. They had 17 beers on tap, offer wine tastings and a limited menu of food. Comfortable couches as well as tables and chairs helped create a welcoming ambiance. A very hospitable husband and wife team runs the place, which has been in operation just over a year. We enjoyed a live jazz combo during the evening, and couldn’t resist ordering a pizza after getting a whiff of the seductive aromas coming from the kitchen. I texted one of my cousins who grew up here of our discovery. Her response: “Who knew Grass Valley had night life! I thought it was just hanging at the ‘Dump’!” (The Humpty Dumpty Kitchen, fondly known as the “Dump” by the teenagers of our generation—it was the place to go to meet your friends, and it continues to serve up good burgers and milkshakes.) The Holbrooke Hotel also hosted a group of musicians playing bluegrass on Sunday afternoon.
I haven’t spent much time in Grass Valley in recent years as family members have all moved to other locales. This visit was a fun journey into the past—my own as well as early California’s. My recent delving into family history turned up one of my great-great grandfathers, Isaac Newton Cain, as well as his brother, Worthington Newcomer Cain, in the 1850 census living in a boarding house in Nevada City, three miles up the road from Grass Valley, apparently trying their hand at mining. They later settled into farming in Colusa County, CA. The more I dig into my family’s history, the more I realize how it was shaped by the California gold rush which in turn increases my interest in California history. How wonderful to be able to visit many of the historic places where my ancestors journeyed on their way to a new life in California!
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