Another View

The Bourn trifecta: Tying foothill gold mine to Irish and San Mateo mansions

By: Pauline Nevins
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Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to the mine we go.” This ditty is whirling around my head while getting ready to drag yet another pair of visitors off to the Empire Mine in Grass Valley — now a California State Park. The visitors are my brother Kevan and his wife, Heather, from England.

I’ve toured the Empire Mine at least six times. Gold mines fascinate me. Growing up in England I'd only heard of coal mines. Coal was the sole source of heat in most houses when I was a child — delivered by men covered from their flat caps to their boots in coal dust. Hundred-weight sacks were heaved off lorries onto hunched backs, then trudged down garden paths into kitchens, and dumped into small dark rooms known as coal holes. Gold seemed a lot more glamorous.

Before visiting the Empire Mine for the first time, I’d pictured the mine cottage to be similar to those that dotted English villages — little thatched houses that an average-sized man had to stoop to enter and in two strides was through the living room and into the kitchen. The “cottage” at the Empire Mine is over 4,000 square feet.

My brother and his wife, who’ve toured many a stately home, listened with interest to the docent’s history lesson about the enterprising family who once owned the mine, as well as Filoli, an estate near San Francisco, and Muckross House in Ireland.

Kevan nudged me. “We’ve been there.”

My brother, his wife, and their two Border Collies had visited Muckross House in Killarney on one of their frequent ferry trips to Ireland, our mother’s birthplace. William Bourn II, we learned from the mine docent, had purchased Muckross in 1910 and gave it to his only daughter, Maude, and her Irish husband, Arthur, as a wedding present. Sadly, Maude died of pneumonia in 1929 on her way from Ireland to visit her ailing father. Three years later, Bourn and his son-in-law gave Muckross to the Irish Nation. The 11,000-acre property became Ireland’s first national park.

Next year,” Kevan said. “When you visit Killarney you should tour Muckross.”

And we did. During the Muckross tour, I learned that Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, and Ireland, not to mention Empress of India, visited Muckross in 1861. Colonel Herbert, Muckross’ original owner, incurred massive debt traveling around Europe purchasing exquisite items to upgrade his property in preparation for the Queen’s visit.

Victoria had an entourage of 100. She stayed two nights.

I dawdled in the parlor while strolling through the ornate high-ceilinged rooms of Muckross House. I pictured myself on the brocade settee by the open fire, my wax makeup protected from melting by a screen on a pole. I’d reach for the tasseled bell pull to summon a servant — “Carson, more watercress sandwiches, please.”

In the basement I was a kitchen maid, wearing a white cap and apron, rolling out dough for steak and kidney pies, and dreading the ring of the servant’s bell. No wonder I didn’t retain much of the docent’s talk with all this daydreaming.

I pulled myself together in time to hear the docent mention the Bourn’s summer cottage at the Empire Mine. The California visitors gave themselves away by smiling when the docent stated that the Grass Valley mine was “near San Francisco.” She may have been thinking about the Filoli property — now in the care of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Filoli popped up in a December email from our hiking friends, Fred and Deanna Eshpeter, soon after we returned to the States. Long-time members in the Auburn-based Rose Society, they alerted us to seats available on the society’s sponsored bus trip to Filoli — not to see the roses, obviously, but to admire the mansion’s Christmas decorations.

I boarded the bus at the Auburn Target parking lot at the ungodly hour of seven o'clock. One of our hiking friends, who shall remain nameless because of her status as the hiking team leader, barely made the bus. She'd overslept, left her snacks behind, confessed to several traffic violations, dropped her phone in a puddle, and arrived in the chilling December morning, barefoot.

It was all worth it. Sparkling lights, glistening glass balls, sumptuous garlands and wreaths, filled the Filoli mansion — it was glorious. Christmas trees appeared in every room. One seven-foot fir was adorned entirely in dried flowers that had been picked fresh from the 16-acre garden. Awesome murals in the grand ballroom depicting Muckross House and lakes around Killarney were all the more meaningful because I had seen the beautiful Irish estate.

On the ride back to Auburn I silently repeated the origin of Filoli’s unusual name. It is Mr. Bourn’s credo:

Fight for a just cause

Love your fellow man

Live a good life

Pauline Nevins: Author of Bonkers for Conkers, a compilation of personal essays, and the memoir, “‘Fudge’ The Downs and Ups of a Biracial, Half-Irish British War Baby.” Pauline is a member of Auburn’s Gold Country Writers. Her email address is