When the topic of California's hard rock gold mining comes up, most people think of the large mines, such as the Empire Mine in Grass Valley, or the Argonaut and Kennedy Mines in Jackson. Actually, there were many small, independently owned, hard rock gold mines. An outstanding example, which you can visit today, is the Kentucky Mine located just east of Sierra City on Highway 49. The Kentucky Mine and stamp mill tour is a unique opportunity to step back into the world of small-scale hard rock gold mining as it was done in the 19th and early 20th century.
Many of the small mines, including the Kentucky, were founded by entrepreneurs as partnerships or small corporations. Some were a family run business. The Kentucky Mine's history includes both. The Kentucky Mine claim was first established in 1853 by James Galloway and his associates. Galloway was the Justice of the Peace and Constable in Downieville. Galloway and his partners operated the mine until about 1896 when the claim was abandoned and the original 10-stamp mill torn down. Not a lot of gold came out of the Kentucky mine during their 43 years of ownership. They only extracted around $200,000 when gold ranged from around $16 to $20 an ounce. Whereas the nearby Sierra Buttes Mine, produced around $17 to $20 million in gold out of the same mountain during its 50 plus years of operation.
In 1910 Emil Loeffler, his son Adolph, and his brother Paul, filed a claim on the abandoned Kentucky Mine. Emil was the butcher in Sierra City and also a gold miner who had worked at several local mines. When his son, Adolph, returned from service during World War I, father and son started mining. From 1928 to 1933, the two of them built the water-powered 10-stamp mill you see today. They used ‘found materials,’ meaning they salvaged material, including the machinery and massive timbers, from local abandoned mines. The stamp mill they built is a huge structure housed within its own building. It has multiple processing levels and stands well over 60 feet top to bottom.
Making money wasn't easy. The Loeffler’s had to blast their way every inch into the mountain. After each blast the gold bearing ore and waste rock would be separated as it was loaded into ore carts. The ore carts would be manually pushed out of the mine. The waste rock would be dumped onto a waste area while a cart with gold bearing ore would be pushed across the trestle into the top section of the stamp mill. Once inside the ore would be dumped into what is called the grizzly to begin the several stages of crushing and processing to extract gold from the rock.
So how much money did they make for all this work? It took a ton or more of ore to mill and extract just one quarter ounce of gold. According to the California Division of Mines 1970 Bulletin, the mine produced a little more than $100,000 during their ownership. Once you accounted for the years of hard labor and operating expenses it wasn't a profitable operation.
Why did Emil and Adolph continue to work the mine for so long? Two words, gold fever. Dianne Bruns, the mine and museum curator, told us that at a Loeffler family reunion at the mine in 2013 one family member said, "my Grandfather swore up and down his entire life that 6 more inches in and we were going to hit the mother lode." Adolph and Emil thought they would eventually hit the much richer gold vein of the closed Sierra Buttes Mine, but they never did.
Tragically in 1944 Adolph lost his life in a mine explosion. Emil never returned to the mine after that. However, the family retained ownership while others worked the mine from 1944 until 1953 when operations ended.
In 1974 Sierra County purchased the Kentucky Mine from the Loeffler family preserving this unique example of small-scale hard rock gold mining. The stamp mill is an intact 19th century stamp mill, and is the only remaining workable gold ore stamp mill in California.
The mine and stamp mill are part of the Kentucky Mine Historic Park and Museum located just above Sierra City on Highway 49. The park and museum are open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Wednesday through Sunday. The guided mine and stamp mill tour is offered daily. The museum features displays and artifacts about Sierra County including gold mining, logging, Native Americans, and the Chinese. View more of our images of the mine and stamp mill here.
100 Kentucky Mine Rd.
Sierra City CA 96125
Sierra City is located in a beautiful area of the Northern Sierra near the popular Lakes Basin region with over 45 alpine lakes. The Sierra County 2015/2016 Visitors Guide is available here: http://www.sierracountychamber.com/resources/documents/sierra-county-visitors-guide.pdf