COLOMA (CBS13) — The race is on to help save a treasured piece of history in the El Dorado County town of Coloma. Most people know Coloma for being where California gold was first discovered, but now a structure that helped bring the community close is in danger of being destroyed.
The gold-rush era house of worship, the Emmanuel Church, has lost its luster. Located near Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, the church was built in 1855 and was California’s first Episcopal church.
Over the decades, its congregation has been an eclectic mix of Californians from freed slaves and a Japanese samurai, to artist Thomas Kincade.
“People don’t understand how this church really broke the norms for that time, people from all over the world, different cultures, different races, they got along in this valley, it was something that you didn’t see at that time and that’s what this place represents,” said Chief Ranger Barry Smith.
But now its wooden walls are suffering dry rot, its rocky foundation is crumbling, and its steeple came crashing down during a storm last fall.
“You lose the roof, you lose the building,” Smith said.
It’s now covered with a tarp and surrounded by fencing, closed off to the public for the last four years due to the danger.
Matthew and Jonathan Burgess’ family attended the church.
“For me, it’s frustrating because I have roots there,” Matthew Burgess said.
Burgess’ great-great-grandfather Nelson was one of those early pioneers and his son was married in the church.
“It’s a part of history, an important piece of history that should no longer be neglected,” Jonathan Burgess said.
Smith says restoring the structure could cost $3 million and is one of the state’s highest priority park projects.
“I’m hoping this year that potentially we will get funding for this,” Smith said.
He said much of the wood restoration can be milled in the park’s recently restored carpenter shop using lumber from nearby fallen trees.
“It has to be the exact same material that is taken out that we’re putting in,” Smith said.
It’s an effort to save a sanctuary that’s seen so much of state history.
“These buildings, they tell where we came from,” Smith said.
The church’s glass window above the alter will be removed Tuesday and packed in storage until the repairs are complete.
The Burgess brothers, along with the non-profit Gold Discovery Park Association, are helping raise money to restore the church. The started a GoFundMe to help raise funds. You can find the GoFundMe here.