GRASS VALLEY – If nothing else, Mike Miller has vision.
Of course it must be said that when Miller’s vision and California’s bureaucracy collide, as they have been known to, there’s usually a good story coming up.
Miller, also the President of Alleghany’s Original Sixteen to One Mine, has contracted to construct an adit and drift to open the guts of the Empire Mine State Park to the public.
The drift will be some 700 feet long, and tie into the old workings, well above the water level of the mine which was last worked in 1956.
“I really wanted this to be done by local miners,” says Miller. “I see it as a monument to the local skills, talent and tenacity of local people that made this the Queen of all gold mines.
“I’m hoping every old timer who ever worked in this mine will come down to drill a round. This isn’t just a public works project, it’s the soul of the area.”
Miller and crew have more than a fiscal interest. Project Manager Billy Joe Van Meter’s grandfather worked at the Empire Mine until the War.
That interest, and the fact he was employing Sixteen to One miners for the job, explains why he approached the job as though it were a mine.
Of course a mine is usually personal property. A state park has a somewhat different view of holes poked into the public earth.
“Well, I’m beginning to see why outfits who bid on public projects bid so high, “Miller admits. “And I’m saddened by this. After all, it’s the public that loses.”
Miller’s newfound awareness came very early in the project. His bid of $1.6 million was nearly a half million dollars lower than his nearest competitor. That spread contributed to the difficulty he had getting insurance.
After overcoming the paperwork difficulties, Miller and crew were ready to start the job on July 12. It wasn’t supposed to take long.
“Hell, it’s a mine. It’s what we do. I had been figuring we’d be done in December.”
That was before the job-starting walk-through with parks officials.
“The first day, the very first day, they said, ‘oh, by the way, did we mention you can’t build here? We’ve had a complaint this ground is toxic.”
Although the ground had tested clean, it was a fight no one wanted, fearing the whole project would be jeopardized.
That ‘by the way’ set the project back three weeks.
“I’d planned on using the waste rock for the rail bed. Now we had to build a completely new approach and build the rail bed first, just to get our equipment in.”
That change of plan also increased the surface area that would be disturbed, triggering the need for additional permits.
“We’re doing this by the book. We’re not working; we’re waiting on the permits,” Miller explained.
“The Book” also calls for 30 pound rail with oversize ties quite close together.
“A lot of people here agree this isn’t consistent with a mine. I don’t know of a mine that uses more than 20 pound rail, with ties much further apart. It’s not realistic. But some things aren’t worth fighting, aren’t worth getting local people crosswise with the Sacramento people.”
The project seems to be a sitting duck for any who might want to cause trouble, either for Miller personally, for the mining industry, or for the Park.
“Somebody, and they won’t tell me who, called OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and said we weren’t safe. We shut down until they came out and inspected. They said ‘there’s nothing unsafe here,’ but it cost us more time.”
Van Meter is both amused and disturbed by concerns raised by officials.
“I’m not kidding you: they get out of the car, see a mud puddle and start taking pictures. It’s like they’ve never been off concrete before.”
There may be problems with unions. Various trades insist their people be employed, a fight Miller is willing to accept.
“Miners are craftsmen. They are necessarily journeymen tunnelers, electricians and carpenters. I’ll fight for the skills of the men who built this in the first place, and the guys who are working now to honor them.”
So far, only the surface has been scratched. Van Meter and Miller are both anxious to get underground and meet the old workings.
“Then, there’ll be something to see.”