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The Occidental Board Mission Home for Chinese Girls was located at 920 Sacramento Street before the Great Earthquake. In charge was famed missionary Donaldina Cameron (1869 – 1968) for whom the Mission Home was later named.
The seminary Cameron was attempting to reach is the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo.
by Donaldina Cameron
The strange mysterious old Chinatown of San Francisco is gone and never more will be.
But amidst surrounding ruin, on one consecrated spot stands a solid brick wall, unshattered by earthquake shock and unblackened by the breath of flame. Within that wall an unmarred archway still bears in stone letters the legend “Occidental Board of Foreign Missions.”
Busy preparations for annual meeting had gone on cheerfully and vigorously. Our girls had scoured, swept, and dusted up to the evening of April seventeenth when final touches were given, curtains hung, and a beautiful fish net (the gift of a rescued Chinese girl) draped in the chapel room. All was ready for the events of the coming day. The last good nights were said, and the family sank into quiet rest.
No premonition had crossed the mind of any one in that busy hopeful household that we were preparing our dear old home for its burial, as it were. The children’s songs echoes through the halls and chapel on that last day—April 17 —singing their parts for the programme of the Annual Meeting to begin on the day following.
Those hymns were the requiem of a period and regime in the history of the Presbyterian Mission Home, the hours of which were numbered, So much has been written and said about the events that took place on that memorable eighteenth of April and the days following that it seems unnecessary to repeat an account of those occurrences.
We only aim to leave a few words of testimony to bear witness in coming years to the kind care of a loving heavenly Father, and also to the unselfish courage displayed by our Chinese girls throughout the terrifying and distressing experiences of the days in which our city and the Home we loved were wiped out of existence.
The terrible earthquake shock that in one instant roused a sleeping city, spared not in its rude awakening the peacefully sleeping house at 920 Sacramento Street. During the never-to-be-forgotten moments the solid earth took on the motions of an angry ocean while chimneys crashed on to our roof, while plaster and ornaments strewed the floors.
There was terror and consternation among the fifty Chinese and Japanese girls and children in the Home, but not one symptom of panic, or of cowardice. Older girls forgot their own fears in anxiety to care for and soothe the little ones. Not one attempted to seek safety alone.
All stood to their duty like little soldiers— a miniature performance of the Birkenhead Drill, for everyone believed her last moment had come.
How that five-story brick building on the side of a steep sand hill stood firm while walls of brick and wood around caved and crumbled is little short of marvelous.
The first great shock over, we thanked God for having spared our lives, and looked forth to see how others had fared. Already columns of smoke were rising like signals of alarm, but so great was the relief of present deliverance no dread of another form of danger troubled us at that early hour.
To calm the frightened children and see that they were dressed, to reduce in some measure the chaos of our Home again to a semblance of order, were our first cares. Then the problem of breakfast for so large a family in a chimneyless house had to be faced. This last perplexity was promptly solved by our efficient matron, Miss [Minnie L.] Ferree, who almost before the bricks stopped falling had managed to secure from a nearby bakery a large basket of bread.
This, with some apples and a kettle of tea sent in by our neighbor, Mrs. Ng Poon Chew, was the last meal eaten in the hospitable dining-room of “920.” Our girls gathered round the little white tables, sang as usual the morning hymn, then repeated the Twenty-third Psalm with more feeling and a deeper realization of its unfailing promises than ever before.
The simple meal was not finished when another severe shock startled all from their places. We hurried to the upper floor. Opening an eastern window and looking across the city, our anxiety became a certainty of approaching danger. The small wreaths of smoke had rapidly changed into dark ominous clouds, hiding in places the bright waters of the day. As we gazed with feelings of indefinable dread over the blocks below, there passed at full gallop a company of United States Cavalry. The city was under martial law.
Turning from our post of outlook to the group of anxious questioning faces near us, we realized that the problems of the day were hourly growing more serious … .
A consultation was held with Mrs. P. D. Browne (who had passed the night in our Home, having arrived the evening before to attend the annual meeting), Mrs. [Cyrus S.] Wright, Mrs. [Enos V.] Robbins, and Mrs. [Lyman A.] Kelley, the latter of whom had walked several miles to come to us.
One plan after another was suggested. At length the First Presbyterian Church at the corner of Van Ness Avenue and Sacramento Street was decided upon as a safe place, as it had stood the earthquake well and was far removed at that time from the burning districts.
The streets in the neighborhood of the Home were fast filling with refugees from the lower parts of town who sought safety or a better view of the fires from our high hillsides. Chinatown also had begun pouring forth its hordes and even in the midst of the general calamity the ever vigilant highbinder was on the watch for his prey.
To have our Chinese girls on the streets among these crowds after nightfall was a danger too great to risk. As hastily, therefore, as we could work amidst the confusion and excitement, we gathered some bedding, a little food, and a few garments together and the last of the girls left the Mission Home.
They tramped the long distance to Van Ness Avenue carrying what they could. On the way the children joined the party, and the entire family was at last established for the night in the Presbyterian Church … the small children and babies were carefully cared for through all the excitement. There were three babies— the tiny Ah Ping, not a month old, had to be tenderly carried by the girls; her poor little mother (a rescued slave) was too feeble and helpless to aid much. Hatsu had her wee baby, only three months old, and little Ah Chung, eighteen months, was equally helpless….
For the last time in the early hours of Thursday morning we sought again that spot best loved by us for a final farewell. Martial law had cleared the desolate streets of all living things for many blocks. But, thanks to one soldier’s sympathetic heart we passed the closely guarded lines and were permitted, with many warnings to make haste, to enter our Home.
The red glare from without lit up each familiar object in every room. The awful events occurring without were almost forgotten for the moment, while we stood in the room that used to be dear Miss [Margaret] Culbertson’s and recalled the happy hours spent there with her, and the Chinese children whom she so loved.
There was little time for sentiment. In the block below a terrific blast of dynamite was set off. The soldier on duty outside imperatively ordered us to make haste. We gathered a few more papers and valuables from our desk, then hurried through the hall strewn with many of our personal belongings treasures which the Chinese girls had tried to save, but at the last had to abandon.
We took a final look through the shadows of the large chapel room into the executive meeting rooms, sacred to memories of many an earnest and inspiring meeting. Then a last good-night to old “920.” By dawn, two hours later, the flames had wrapped it round.
At break of day the little band were hurriedly preparing for another march, the shelter of the night being no longer secure. Fire menaced from three directions. What, tragedy, what pathos, and what comedy too, were crowded into our lives these, two days?
Never shall we forget the busy preparations made that Thursday morning for the long march to the Ferry. Many things carried so far must be left behind; much must be carried.
Which to take, what to leave, and how to carry what we could not abandon, these and many more were the problems to be solved. Sheets were torn up for ropes and broom handles served for bamboo poles.
Laughing in spite of their distress, the girls tried the vegetable peddler’s scheme with their bundles, and it worked well, for two bundles could thus be carried by one person. All had a load, not even little five-year-old Hung Mooie being exempt. She tearfully consented to carry two dozen eggs in the hope of having some to eat by and by.
An older maiden, whose name I forebear to mention, added not a little to her own load by carrying in her bundle a large box containing the voluminous correspondence of a devoted suitor! Her look of genuine distress when advised to abandon the precious box was so appealing we had to save it.
Poor old Sing Ho just out of the City and County Hospital, who had recently lost the sight of one eye, staggered bravely along under a huge bundle of bedding and all her earthly possessions, which she cheerfully rolled down steep hills, and dragged up others.
Two young mothers tied their tiny babies on their backs while others helped carry their bedding. As tears would not avail (the hour for weeping had not yet come), laughter was the tonic which stimulated that weary, unwashed, and uncombed procession on the long tramp through stifling, crowded streets near where the fire raged, and through the desolate district already burned, where fires of yesterday still smoldered.
But to all things there is an end, and so the long walk to the Ferry at the foot of Market Street ended. A boat was about to cross the bay to Sausalito. Our desired haven was the Seminary at San Anselmo. We lost no time going on board. It was a thankful though a completely exhausted company that sank down… and bundles and babies on the lower deck of the steamer, too weary to walk to the salon. But tired and homeless, knowing not where that night we were to lay our heads, our only feeling was one of gratitude for deliverance as we looked over the group of more than sixty young faces and realized how God had cared for His children.
Safely arrived at San Anselmo, the only available place of shelter for us there was an empty barn and of this we gladly took possession. Life in an empty barn with very scanty bedding, insufficient food, one tin dipper and a dozen teaspoons and plates for a family of sixty is not comfortable, yet all made the best of the situation and shared unselfishly the few necessities available
To mention the names of all the good and generous friends who have helped by sympathy, by gifts, and with money, would require the writing of another story. But in due time and place each one of these good people will be “honorably mentioned.”
Our tale would not be complete without the usual touch of romance that should go with every true story.
Long before the eighteenth of April the cards were out for a wedding at the Home. Yuen Kum, a clear, bright girl who had been with us several years, was to be the bride of Mr. Henry Lai of Cleveland, Ohio. The date set for the wedding was April twenty-first. And to prove the truth of the old adage “Love will find a way” let me tell you that the wedding did take place on that very date!
The ceremony was performed by Dr. [Warren H.] Landon in the beautiful, ivy-covered chapel at San Anselmo, and notwithstanding all the difficulties the young man had gone through in finding his fiancee, on his arrival from the East the day of the earthquake, and all the trying experiences though which Yuen Kum had passed, they were a happy couple as they received the congratulations of those present.
Just after the wedding, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Lai started for their home in Cleveland amidst showers of California roses and the best wishes of their many friends. So romance with its magic touch helped us for a time to forget our great losses.
In 1939, 33 years after the earthquake, The San Francisco News reported that the Presbyterian home was to move from its rebuilt headquarters.
CHINESE HOME MOVES
Presbyterian Mission Pageant Reviews Fight Against Vice
New headquarters were being established at 142 Wetmore-st today by the Chinese Presbyterian Mission Home, which has been at 920 Sacramento-st since the 1860s.
Yesterday nearly 300 women members of the Presbyterian Society of San Francisco met at the ivy-covered mansion and in a pageant reviewed the society’s fight against Chinatown vice. In attendance was Miss Donaldina Cameron, “white angel” to hundreds of Chinese slave girls.
The Sacramento-st building will become the Chinese Christian Union School after the society is settled in its new quarters.
The San Francisco News
May 4, 1939
Return to the earthquake eyewitness accounts.
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