The Red Church of Sonora: An Ironic Painting Story

A must-do road trip for anyone who loves California and its history is to travel the length of CA Highway 49. This road wiggles south to north through the Sierra foothills, starting at Oakhurst, sixteen miles south of Yosemite, and following the Mother Lode vein of gold through dozens of Gold Rush-era towns, all the way to the northernmost one, Nevada City. The road actually veers east at that point and ends at Highway 70 in Vinton, a place that almost doesn’t exist—it has no zip code—and though it has the distinction to lie along Highway 49, it’s too remote from the Mother Lode to cash in on the Gold Rush

The Mother Lode was, of course, the impetus for the California Gold Rush. The madness started quietly enough. In 1848 a guy called James Marshall was hired as a carpenter by John Sutter, an immigrant from Switzerland, to help him build a sawmill. While on this job, Marshall found a few bits of gold in the creek that ran through Sutter’s property. Of course Sutter and Marshall wanted to keep this astonishing discovery quiet, and of course that was never going to happen! The word quickly got out, and by 1849 the rush was on, and in no time at all the rugged foothills were crawling with crazy fortune hunters, dubbed “49ers”. Some gold rushers would, in fact, get rich, but they weren’t the ones out there with picks and shovels. (I’ll have a story about one of them in another blog). And poor hapless John Sutter wasn’t lucky. His property was overrun by rampaging gold seekers, destroying his mill, and stealing everything he owned, leaving him broke.  

But I digress. A week is hardly enough time to experience all there is to do and see along Highway 49, but that’s how many do it the first time. And if you’re a true history buff, you’ll be in heaven because history oozes from every worn clapboard building and every overhanging false front in every one of the Gold Rush towns. You’ll want to stroll through maybe one or two towns per day, have your dinners in restaurants with the word “saloon” in their names, and stay in hotels with ghosts in the basement!

The town of Sonora is one of the more picturesque Gold Rush towns. The main drag of “Old Town”, Washington Street, has an unforgettable feature. Not long after you turn off the highway and enter the town, you start uphill along a gently curving road, lined on either side by those clapboard buildings and false fronts, and at one point you round a bend. And then The Red Church comes into view. “Stunning” is hardly adequate to describe it!  The church is the beautiful rich color of a perfect merlot—and it sits like a queen on a throne at the very top of the Washington Street hill.  When you get close to it, you might realize its diminutive size has deceived you. Its position at the upper end of Washington Street and its elegant surroundings are just right for producing an exalted and delightful optical illusion.

Visitors do not forget The Red Church (its actual name is St. James Episcopal). Maybe in time the memories of the things they saw on their Gold Rush survey tour start to fuzz up, and they may forget where they saw what. They may forget they saw The Red Church in Sonora. Heck—they may not even remember the name of the town at all!  But they remember The Red Church!  It will remain for most a vivid reminder of their Gold Country adventure.  And—the irony mentioned in the title—The Red Church isn’t even from the Gold Rush era! The gold fields had played out and most of the 49ers had given up and gone home broke by 1857. The Red Church wasn’t built till 1859.

Above you see The Red Church, painted en plein air on a Sonora street.

Coda: If you wish to consider acquiring this painting, please let me know and we can have a chat.

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