Red Church (St. James Episcopal Church)

This is the well-known Red Church, also known as the St. James Episcopal Church.

In the early years of the Gold Rush there was little attention paid to religion. Sunday was the one day the miners stopped mining and those from remote camps came to town. But they didn’t spend the day in religious pursuits. This was a day of shopping, of attending auctions where newly-arrived goods were sold, and for gambling, drinking, and watching bullfighting and bear-baiting.

In 1859, a group of local Episcopalians decided to look into building a church. In response to their request, the Episcopal Church sent a Norwegian minister, the Rev. John Gassman, to Sonora. This minister would hold services on Sunday mornings in Columbia and a few hours later hold services in Sonora at the county courthouse—they didn’t worry so much in those days about separation of church and state.

The Red Church was built and first used for services in 1860, when the Gold Rush had given way to a time of more permanence. The foundation of the church is stone, the building itself wood, with the walls inside made of wood and plaster. The height of the church, to the top of the cross, is sixty-one feet.

In March, 1868—less than eight years after construction of the church—the United States Hotel, which was across the street toward the west where the Red Mansion is today, burned down. The firemen could do nothing to save the hotel, and turned their attention to saving the church. But the fire spread to the west side of the church and almost completely destroyed it. It was, however, insured, and quickly rebuilt.

One of the churchgoers, as a schoolboy in about 1920, was Melvin Belli, the late San Francisco attorney.

In 1949, after nearly ninety years of use of the church, it was renovated, with modern heating and lighting added. It is still used as a church.

About a quarter-mile north of here, near the high school, Woods Creek passes under Washington Street. This was the creek where, four miles downstream, gold was first discovered in the county. Near the creek was a Mi-Wuk Indian camp. The women at the camp would remove the outer bark of what were called digger pine trees to get to the inner bark. They would then cut the inner bark into long strips and weave them into baskets.

These baskets were woven tightly enough to hold water, and they used them to wash clothes in. They would heat stones in a fire and, picking up the hot stones with a forked stick, place enough stones in a large basket filled with water for the water to boil. They used soap made from the soap root plant.

Across the street to the west is the Red Mansion, more correctly known as the Street-Morgan Mansion. This Queen Anne house was built in 1896, on the site of the former United States Hotel. That hotel was burned down twice and rebuilt once.