Traces of the Past
● By Wendy Sipple
Photo courtesy of El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce, published in book entitled, “El Dorado Sketches.”
In 1946, George Mathis began an artistic journey through the foothills of California’s Gold Country. His desire to authentically recreate and recapture the sites and scenes of the past led him to the ruins of abandoned mining camps, leftover stamp mills, ramshackle buildings and discarded railroad bridges. Through his art, Mathis wanted to preserve these historic sites before man or nature destroyed them forever. The artistic record he created aptly earned him worldwide acclaim as the “Pictorial Historian of the Mother Lode.”
Mathis’ career began in San Francisco during the 1930s where he worked as an art teacher, sign painter, marionette designer, animated display creator, window dresser, cartoonist and art director. In 1944, eight of his penciled drawings depicting cable cars and other famous sites of San Francisco appeared in a souvenir publication sold to visiting tourists.
Mathis left the Bay Area’s commercial art world in 1946 and devoted the next 30 years to chronicling northern California’s golden past. With his wife, Jean, and his future-artist daughter, Carol, he first explored the Northern Mines around Sierra City, then moved south to Rough and Ready and Auburn Ravine. Eventually, he and his family settled in Coloma where he began the last few miles of his artistic journey.
“Dad’s idea of a great family outing was to unroll a Forest Service map and follow its trails to some old gold mine,” recalled Carol. “. . . The reality was traveling a bumpy road along a sheer drop-off, jacking the car over boulders, and climbing through broken-down adits (entrances into mines) into a dark, wet, hole in the side of a mountain miles from anywhere. With the smell of tuna sandwiches filling the car, we’d wait hours while Dad sketched the countryside and whatever structure remained at the site.”
With his pad and pencil, Mathis created over 200 drawings of places he felt might never be seen again. His pictorial celebration of El Dorado County’s history include sketches of the Alabaster Lime Quarry, Georgia Slide, the Hotel Bret Harte, Pino Grande and other important spots lost over time. He also depicted long-ago events, such as the arrival of the Wakamatsu colonists at Gold Hill in 1869, mule teams hauling freight at Slippery Ford, a stage crossing the Mosquito Bridge headed for Placerville, and Chinese miners at work in the diggings.
Weekdays, Mathis worked as an illustrator for Aerojet General, painting space stations and rockets. His job landed him the unique assignment of painting America’s first space walk. His rendering of the historic scene made the front page of the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers around the world.
He retired from Aerojet in 1970; afterward, he dedicated his time to studying local history and fulfilling his artistic commitment to realistically portray it. During that time, he encouraged his daughter’s artistic talents and helped her complete a series of sketches of Old Hangtown.
Carol affectionately recollected, “Through the years, he encouraged the virtues of ‘taking the time to draw a wagon wheel accurately; it’s all a matter of light against dark; that shadow’s not solid black; you didn’t leave any middle tones!’ And so I learned his art and was able to add a little to his trip down Highway 49 by drawing Placerville’s miners and buildings. Dad died in 1977 and most of these he never saw.” •