Originally posted in The Union newspaper December 2, 2013
Construction of Empire Mine’s tourist tunnel comes to a halt: State says won’t fund project due to fiscal challenges, past and present.
By Matthew Renda
Local advocates for the Empire Mine State Historical Park expressed dismay after officials from the California Department of Parks and Recreation indicated that they would not fund the continued construction of an 875-foot underground mine tunnel. “A lot of money has been spent on a hole in the ground,” said Jim Dierberger, a volunteer with the Spire Mine State Park Association, a nonprofit established to support the park. “It’s not only maddening, but it certainly raises a tremendous number of issues regarding their wisdom, decision-making, and they are really after.”
Department of parks’ spokeswoman Vicky Waters said the department’s financial struggles in recent years meant the agency could not dedicate more resources to the project that was intended to provide prospective visitors with a unique opportunity to tour an adit – a mining tunnel. “Given the fiscal constraints our department has been under for the past several years and the challenges we continue to face, our priority is on the repair and replacement of existing facilities throughout the state park system,” Waters said. “As stewards of the people’s resources, we are obligated to ensure the viability of cultural and natural resources in the entire system and are therefore unable to allocate further funding to the Empire Mine adit project.”
Dierberger said the nearly $3 million spent on the project since it was conceived of in 1986 and begun in 2004 should be considered a waste. “They had to purchase real property, but there is talk of taking those parcels and liquidating them,” he said. Empire Mine features hundreds of miles of underground workings, a vestige of its heyday as one of the most productive gold mines in world history. Each year, about 100,000 visitors descend on the park, some of whom come to learn about historic mining activities and see what once was the centerpiece of the California Gold Rush.
The Empire Mine association estimates that those visitors generate about $1 million for the local community. The association further states that the underground tunnel, which would be unique in California’s park system, would attract an additional 100,000 people and further bolster the local economy to the tune of another$1 million. The Nevada County board of supervisors passed a resolution in October urging the parks department to prioritize the project. Ultimately, cost became an insurmountable impediment, according to the parks department.
A steel bracing set crucial to the integrity of the tunnel deteriorated due to the presence of groundwater in the tunnel and the flow of damp air from the workings. The cost to replace the support system proved too much. The parks department has other projects on the wish list of local officials, including the installation of solar panels at Malakoff Digging State Historic Park to help defray energy costs and a project to rehabilitate the Bridgeport cover bridge, part of the South Yuba River State Park system. Both those parks were on the closure list and still face revenue problems. Empire Mine was never to the closure list due to the park’s relative popularity and ability to garner revenues.