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California: Park scraps gold mine tour after spending $3.5 million

California's Gold Rush may have started at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, but Empire Mine in Grass Valley proved to be among the largest gold-producing mines in the state. For more than two decades, the state historic park had plans to relive those glory days by taking tourists on mining carts into the historic shaft -- plans that cost the agency $3.5 million before they were scrapped last year over budget and safety concerns.

California State Parks spokeswoman Vicky Waters said Tuesday that the agency put the brakes on re-creating the mine-shaft experience at the park in October. "The department just could not continue to fund this project for an undetermined period of time while facing safety concern issues," she said.

Empire Mine State Historic Park north of Auburn is considered one of the "oldest, largest, deepest, longest and richest" gold mines in the state. It operated for more than 100 years and produced 5.6 million ounces of gold before it shut down in 1956, the park's website says. Visitors come to see gold ore samples at the park museum and to tour the gardens, Bourn Cottage and other buildings at the site.

The park planned to add an Underground Tour that would draw tourists who want a firsthand look at the gold mine and its shafts. The main stumbling block, according to the state park agency, were two 2012 reports from the state fire marshal that found steel beams installed to shore up the tunnel were corroding and unsafe. State parks says it would take an estimated $1.4 million to fix the problem and instead decided to ditch it.

State parks Director Anthony L. Jackson in a letter earlier this month cited the "department's fiscal challenges, the focus on repairing and replacing existing facilities through the State Park system, and the significant safety concerns stated by the State Fire Marshal" as reasons for the action.

Jackson was responding to the Empire Mine Park Assn., a volunteer organization that had raised funds for the Underground Tour and protested the action.

According to the Sacramento Bee, the organization's president, Larry Skinner, wrote in a letter: "This represents an enormous loss to not only the community and the park system, but also to the taxpayers of this state, who will have spent over $2.5 million on this inaccessible hole in the ground."

The board of supervisors of encompassing Nevada County also tried to rescue the plan, which it said could bring "thousands of future visitors," the story said.

Waters says the state park agency isn't opposed to creating something that offers visitors a firsthand experience of the Gold Rush era, as long as it doesn't involve the expensive hold in the ground.

"We will at some future time consider a project outside the mine that could re-create the mine shaft experience," she said.

Mary.Forgione@latimes.com
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