In the underground tunnels of Julian’s Eagle Mine, all that glitters is gold

Come for the gold rush history lesson, stay for the apple pie

Photo: Sanna Boman

In the winter of 1869, Fred Coleman was watering his horse in Julian, California, when he saw something glimmer in the creek. Coleman—a former slave—had struck gold, thus launching California’s third gold rush.

Present-day Julian is an idyllic mountain town famous for its apple pie, but remnants of its origins as a mining community still abound. One of them is the Eagle Mine, a gold mine established in 1870 by William Moran. For the past 50 years, the Eagle Mining Co. has been guiding visitors through 1,000 feet of underground tunnels.

“There were over 200 gold mines here and that’s how the settlers made their living, prospecting for gold,” says Paul Nelson, third-generation owner of the Eagle Mine. “If it wasn’t for the gold rush, we wouldn’t have the town today.”

A labyrinth of tunnels

From Julian’s Main Street, the Eagle Mine is a quick three-minute drive up a hill and down a dirt road—but it feels like a journey back in time. Antique mining equipment is strewn about, alongside buildings and vehicles reminiscent of the Old West.

The five-stamp mill could process 10 tons of quartz in 24 hours, producing at least 10 ounces of gold in the same timeframe. | Photo: Sanna Boman

At one edge of the property sits a bright red Californian five-stamp mill, manufactured in San Francisco in 1872. This massive piece of equipment was used to process ore from the mine and extract the gold. There is also a livery stable-turned-museum and a gold panning area.

But the star attraction here is the mine itself.

The Eagle Mine is made up of several levels, each consisting of an intricate series of tunnels. Our guide, Matthew—who speaks with a heavy Californian surfer accent, despite looking nothing like a surfer—mixes history and geology lessons with rapidly fired one-liners, and he effortlessly switches between languages to appease both the English- and Spanish-speakers on the tour.

We start at the adit—the mine entrance—and work our way deeper and deeper into the mountain, through ever-narrowing tunnels and creaky, wooden staircases.

The adit—or entrance—to the Eagle Mine. | Photo: Sanna Boman

At one point, Matthew switches off all the lights in the mine and everything goes black. I half-expect some of the smaller children on the tour to start crying, but instead everything is dead silent. It’s eerie, and definitely a bit terrifying. I’m not even afraid of the dark, or so I thought.  

Matthew lights a tiny candle, attached to a “sticking tommy”—an iron rod candle holder with a sharp end that can be wedged into the wall for hands-free usage—but points out that modern candles burn much brighter than the ones made from animal fat back in the day. Even with our “modern” candlelight, the mine suddenly feels both smaller and bigger than before. The walls are definitely closing in a bit, and the thought of finding our way back to the entrance through the labyrinth of tunnels and staircases feels almost impossible.

According to Matthew, mine workers would spend 12-hour days hacking away with pickaxes and shovels to get through just four feet of rock. And they would do it largely in the dark.

There is a trick to finding your way out though: Just follow the ore cart tracks.

Twenty-seven stories straight down

If you’re even the slightest bit claustrophobic, this tour is not for you. At 5-foot-9, I’m not able to walk or stand upright for parts of the tour, and instead have to hunch over and watch my head. The deeper we get into the mine, the narrower and lower the tunnels get.

To save money, miners would walk through these tunnels in the dark, not lighting their candles until they arrived at their work areas. This meant they had to keep their hands up in front of them to know when it was time to duck down to avoid hitting their heads on the hard rock.

The most uniquely chilling feature of the Eagle Mine, however, is the vertical shaft we encounter about halfway through the tour. At 425-foot deep, it’s the equivalent of a 27-story building going straight down. Mine workers—usually two at a time, with their legs hanging out on the sides for balance—would climb into an ore bucket and then get hoisted down the shaft.

California’s shaft bell signals. | Photo: Sanna Boman

In order to make this operation as safe as possible, a bell system was adopted to allow the bucket hoister to communicate with the workers in the shaft. This was standard procedure in mines across the country, and the Eagle Mine adhered to the State of California’s shaft bell signals. Ringing the bell seven times meant there had been an accident; ringing it twice meant the bucket was being lowered.

Come for the tour, stay for the pie

Once the gold rush ended, similar places fell into ghost town status. Julian, however, turned out to be an excellent place to grow apples—and today you can barely throw a rock on Main Street without hitting a pie shop. Since 1949, the town has hosted its annual Julian Apple Days Festival, and the entire township has been designated an official California Historical Landmark.

The Eagle Mine ceased operations in 1934, when the price of gold dropped. “It was no longer possible to pay your workers and still make a profit,” Nelson says.  

A former blacksmith shop is now a museum and rock shop. | Photo: Sanna Boman

Following the death of William Moran, the mine’s original owner, the tunnels were buried to keep people out and protect the equipment. “My grandfather bought the land, opened the tunnels, and installed lights. He set it up to teach and educate the public about the gold rush of 1870,” Nelson says.

Admission to the mine is $10 for adults—the same price it was when Nelson’s grandparents, Ed and Ellen Sprague, started doing these tours in 1968. “It’s a discount rate,” Nelson says. “And it’s for sharing the history with the public and keeping this open so we can all enjoy it and share our history.”

The tour concludes with a learning demonstration of how to pan for gold—but you don’t get to keep what you find. “If I teach you how to pan for gold and I put it right in front of you, you’ll clean me out in two minutes. It costs me more to give you the tour,” Nelson says.

He encourages anyone who wants to know more about California’s gold rush to visit Julian: “Come on up and do a gold mine tour, learn about the history, and enjoy some apple pie.”

If you go

The Eagle Mining Co. opens at 10 a.m. seven days a week, and tours are given throughout the day. Just show up, pay your admission ($10 for adults, $5 for children), and wait for the next tour to start.