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Matters Historical: Filoli founder dug deep for gold at Empire Mine

William Bourn II returned to San Francisco in 1878 after several years in England at Cambridge, where he studied the classics. His return was not long after the suicide of his father, who had been the owner of the Empire Mine in Grass Valley.

Word was that the Empire had bottomed out. Mining engineers informed young Bourn that prospects of rejuvenation were slim. Nevertheless, the new proprietor pressed for deeper exploration and, in the process, reaped a huge bonanza.

By the time operation of the Empire finally ceased in the 1950s, it was revered as the oldest continuously operating, and richest, mine in California. During its 106 years, 367 miles of tunnels were driven and yielded an average of a million dollars in gold annually. Beneath the pine-clad hills of Nevada County, tunnels had plunged to a depth of 12,500 feet.

William Bourn II, photographed in the 1870s, shortly after being summoned home by family to become proprietor of the Empire Mine. (Courtesy of MS&SB Collection)
William Bourn II, photographed in the 1870s, shortly after being summoned home by family to become proprietor of the Empire Mine. (Courtesy of MS&SB Collection) 

Bourn II supervised its most productive years. His mine became a model of efficient operation. While so many Mother Lode mines were characterized by rickety shacks and piles of junk, Bourn made a fetish of order and neatness. The Grass Valley operation became a showplace.

In 1890, summoned by Bourn, celebrated architect Willis Polk designed a home for him at the mine that resembled a Scottish country estate. Foundations and its exterior stone work were fashioned from gold-bearing quartz. The four-bedroom structure, Empire Cottage, as Bourn dubbed it, was set in a 12-acre park replete with ornamental trees, fountains and sweeping lawns. High stone walls enclosed the cottage and gardens.

Bourn, who rarely visited the mine, nevertheless maintained a staff of white-liveried Chinese servants to cater to his every whim.

His employees, experienced miners brought from Cornwall, were forbidden to walk on the meticulously manicured lawns. Those who broke this rule were fired immediately.

A man of culture and enlightenment, Bourn left his mark on San Francisco as well. Some referred to him as the “philosopher-president” of the city’s Spring Valley Water Company, noting that he often punctuated letters with lofty quotes from Goethe and Browning. He served as a director of the San Francisco Exposition in 1915. And, during World War I, few individuals were more supportive of the effort. He financed and equipped two ambulances that were sent to the Western Front while also contributing to the Lafayette Escadrille, an organization of young Americans who flew for France before the U.S. declaration.

He was popular in august circles, and rich. Twice, Bourn served as president of the prestigious Pacific-Union Club while belonging to other equally renowned men’s social organizations in London and Paris. On the San Francisco Peninsula, even today, he is lionized for building Filoli, an 1,800-acre estate in Woodside. The 36,000-square-foot Georgian residence, with 43 rooms and 17 fireplaces, built on apparently surplus land on the shore of Crystal Springs Lake, received a low assessment from San Mateo County when Bourn reported that it was a “mere farm.”

Not all in San Francisco appreciated him. Following the earthquake of 1906, Bourn, along with well-placed confederates, including William H. Crocker and Antoine Borel, began buying stock in the privately owned Spring Valley Water Company, successfully taking it over. Bourn assumed the presidency in 1908. Their scheme was to take control of the city’s principal water supply, including reservoirs and distribution system. And, after that, sell it to the city at “a fair market price.”

Many San Franciscans regarded him as a public enemy who, reported the San Francisco Call, harbored “unconcealed and candid hostility” toward the city.  Water rates rose and service declined. The company was accused of bad service, oppressive exactions and dirty politics. The Call summed up Bourn’s attitude as “the public be damned, and if you don’t like it, what are you going to do about it?”

Editors assailed him for “amusing himself at the expense of city officials.” Earlier, in the 1890s, as the president of San Francisco Gas & Electric Company, he was accused of making payoffs to the board of supervisors to allow him to control gas rates. And when he was top executive in the water company, one newspaper noted that “any statement coming from the Spring Valley Water Company is regarded with suspicion and an attempt to deceive.”

For more than two decades, oblivious to negative public opinion, Capitalist Bourn (as he was generally referred by the press) secretively continued to negotiate with city officials. A deal was finally concluded in March 1930. Spring Valley sold its watershed lands, the reservoirs and the distribution system to the people of San Francisco for the then staggering sum of $41 million.

Bourn declared that this deal constituted his single greatest accomplishment. In the dining and reading rooms of the Pacific Union Club, he received acclaim as a financial Caesar.

He was not present to appreciate the acclamation. Bourn suffered a paralytic stroke in 1922 and, thereafter, became a recluse at Filoli. He passed away in 1936.