Smartsville Church Receives Thomas Mooney Portrai

By Kathleen Smith


Smartsville, Ca.



Part of the mission of the Smartsville Church Restoration Fund, in addition to restoring the former church building, is to make it useful as a museum and visitors center. On September 1st, an unexpected original portrait of Thomas Mooney (1823 - 1888), appeared on the doorstep of the church. Fortunately, Janet Burton, SCRFI secretary, just happened to be there.


Two sisters, Sally Knutson and Charle Lennon, who had been caring for this rare artifact for many years delivered it to SCRFI. It was one of the heirlooms their mother had saved as keepsakes from the Mooney home at Empire Ranch, near Smartsville.  Jessie Mooney created this painting of her father, Thomas.


Sally and Charle realized the painting’s historical significance and wanted it to have a proper home where it would be valued and exemplify their family’s past and Mooney’s part in the settling of the Smartsville area. Sally and Charle learned of the plans for the museum when they attended Pioneer Day several years ago and were pleased by the restoration and decided the former church/museum would make the perfect home.


Their great grandmother, Mrs. Ben Taylor of Grass Valley was the sister of Mary Jane Huling, Thomas Mooney’s wife. Thomas and Mary Jane had eight children, two boys and six girls; none of them married.  Jessie, one of the daughters, was a professional artist and was listed as such in the directories of the day. She also did civic work and taught art classes to local children. The painting needs some restoration work and SCRFI is looking for a qualified professional to make the repairs. 


Thomas Mooney played a formative role in Yuba County as the co-founder of the Empire Ranch an important early staging stop on the road from Marysville to the northern mines.  Like most successful people of his time he was an entrepreneur, speculator, diplomat, philanthropist, civic leader and family man. 


He was born in County Kildare, Ireland, January 7, 1821, arrived in California in 1849 and started in the teaming business with a partner, Michael Riley in Sacramento. In 1851 he and Riley purchased the property in Yuba County and named it Empire Ranch.  They established the stage stop to service other teamsters who needed a stopping place on the road, a meal and a place to sleep, and care for their teams.  They also greatly profited by providing entertainment for the miners, hearty food with plenty of champagne, claret and milk punch on Sundays.


The post office was established at Empire Ranch in 1855. In later days Mooney kept race horses and held races at the ranch and hosted dances and other social activities. He was one of the hearty folks who came to seek adventure and built a life in Yuba County.


To learn more about this amazing individual and other pioneers of Yuba County, mark your calendars and plan to come to Smartsville’s Pioneer Day on the last Saturday in April.


Photo caption; “Sally Knutson and Charle Lennon donate the portrait of Thomas Mooney to Smartsville Church.”

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