Kentucky Mine museum offers glimpses of another time
Sunlight streams in through a dusty window, providing just enough light to see. Huge support timbers — big enough to seem incapable of rotting — criss-cross the ceiling. Large, oil-covered metal wheels, rods and pistons seem poised and ready to operate.
One of the most amazing things about the Kentucky Mill is that it almost looks like it could operate today. Restored in the mid-1970s, the mill is a remarkably intact example of an early 20th century stamp mill.
The Kentucky Mill is part of the Kentucky Mine/Sierra County Historical Park and Museum, located just north of the historic mining town of Sierra City. To reach it, go west of Reno on Interstate 80 to Truckee. Turn north on Highway 89 and continue to Sattley. Turn west on Highway 49 to Sierra City.
Gold was first discovered in the vicinity of Sierra City in the early 1850s by miners following in the footsteps of explorers Jim Beckwourth and Major William Downie.
In 1853, the Kentucky Consolidated Mining Co. was formed to develop the gold resources found north of Sierra City. In the 1860s, a five-stamp mill was built at the Kentucky, a hardrock mine, which was increased in size to 10 stamps in 1888.
As with most mines, activity at the Kentucky Mine waxed and waned through the years. In 1920, after several decades of abandonment, Emil Loeffler of Sierra City made another attempt to work the Kentucky. Operating it as a kind of hobby, Loeffler and his son found sufficient ore to continue working the site for the next few years.
In 1928, the Loefflers decided to construct a new mill, using materials and equipment salvaged from other mines. The mine and mill, which took five years to build, operated until 1944, when, tragically, Adolph “Dutch” Loeffler, Emil’s son, was killed in the mine. Despite the loss, the family sporadically operated the facility until 1953.
In the late 1960s, the Sierra County Historical Society embarked on an aggressive program to identify valuable historic resources in the region, with the idea of preserving the best.
Because of its good condition — the Loefflers had continued to maintain it over the years — the Kentucky Mine and Mill was selected as the first site for preservation.
In 1974, following the passage of a statewide bond for historic preservation projects, the county purchased the Kentucky from the Loeffler family, and began restoring the site, including the mill, mine tunnel, blacksmith shop and trestle.
Today, visitors will find one of the best preserved early 20th-century mining mills in California. A picturesque high trestle, which still seems capable of carrying filled ore carts, connects the three-story mill to the mine on an adjacent hillside.
The mine site is interesting because the blacksmith shop was built at the mine’s entrance. Ore carts ran on a track that passed through the middle of the shop. Next door to the mine/blacksmith shop is a restored miner’s shack, filled with furnishings and other accoutrements typically used by an old sourdough.
Inside the mill, which you can see during an informative guided tour, you will find a Pelton wheel, an innovative air compressor system for dynamite drilling, and an impressive milling operation that included ominous ore crushers (the gears boast huge spiked teeth) and stamps.
Below the mill, you can tour a nice small museum, located inside of a replica of a 19th-century hotel (the Bigelow House, which once stood in nearby Sierra City). The museum contains plenty of Sierra County artifacts, including a fine collection of historic photographs, mining certificates, a school desk, ancient quilts, a safe, piano, phonograph and other objects.
The mine and museum are open from May 25 to Labor Day weekend.
Nearby Sierra City is also worthy of note. While avalanches flattened the town in 1852, 1888 and 1889, enough remains to hint at the town’s rich mining history.
Several brick buildings have survived, including the 1871 Busch Building, once a Wells Fargo office, and reportedly the birthplace of the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus. This historic society/social club, founded by gold miners in 1857, originally was created as a parody of several brotherhood organizations, such as the Masons and Odd Fellows.
The Clampers faded toward the end of the century, but were restarted in 1931 by a San Francisco historian. The group continues to thrive and, in addition to being a rowdy drinking society, has erected hundreds of informative historic markers throughout the West.
Sierra City also is nestled below the magnificent Sierra Buttes, among the most beautiful mountains in Northern California.
For information, contact the Sierra County Historic Park and Museum at http://www.sierracountyhistory.org/kentucky-mine-historic-park-and-museum.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.