Seeking Shelter in Marin: Chinatown Refugees After the 1906 Earthquake
After the catastrophic earthquake, a group of more than 60 Chinese women and girls fled to San Anselmo.
In the early morning hours of April 18, 1906, the massive San Francisco earthquake struck. Fires erupted, and in the days that followed, thousands of exhausted “earthquake refugees” trudged over cracked streets and around toppled buildings seeking safety. Some fled to seek safety in Marin.
A large group of these people came from a “rescue home” on the edge of Chinatown, at 920 Sacramento Street, just below the nearly completed a Fairmont Hotel. After fires destroyed the home, its superintendent, Donaldina (Dolly) Cameron, led more than 60 mostly Chinese girls, women, and babies through the burning city, onto a ferry from Sausalito, and eventually to shelter in a barn in San Anselmo, on the grounds of the San Francisco Theological Seminary.
In the five years I spent researching and writing my forthcoming historical book The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown, I came to appreciate the courage of Dolly Cameron and the girls and women in her care. Besides danger from unstable buildings and fire, they were contending with other residents desperately vying for passage out of the city; the disaster took more than 3,000 lives and left a quarter of a million people homeless. I also discovered Marin County’s many connections to the story of Cameron and the Chinatown refugees.
Members of the group who made that journey to Marin ranged in age from an infant named Ah Ping, only a few weeks old, to young women and girls who’d escaped sex slavery or other forms of servitude to the elderly, including a woman who was partially blind. By the time they reached the seminary, Cameron was responsible for the feeding, housing and care of 67 people.
Tracing this large group’s journey, I visited the castle-like seminary, overlooking the Ross Valley. In the library, I pored over annual reports of the group that had set up the rescue home known as the Occidental Mission House in Chinatown in 1874. Those women fought the slave trade with the goal of providing shelter to those who’d been subjected to involuntary servitude.
Buried inside the musty records for 1906–1907 was a note by Cameron that read, “Life in an empty barn, with very scanty bedding, insufficient food, one tin dipper and a dozen teaspoons and plates for a family of 60 is not comfortable; yet all made the best of the situation.” What goes unmentioned is that the seminary itself suffered significant damage during the quake, including the partial collapse of Scott Hall’s tower.
It began raining in the days after the women arrived, adding to their misery. But Cameron also reported a happy occasion: the wedding of one of the home’s residents, Yuen Kum, to a man named Henry Lai, who had traveled from Cincinnati for the event. Originally the ceremony was meant to occur in the Mission Home in San Francisco, but instead, on April 21, 1906, the couple wed in the seminary’s chapel “amidst showers of California roses,” Cameron wrote. More than a century later, I passed the spot where it happened, on my way to the library.
A nearby orphanage — the predecessor to what was long known as Sunny Hills and recently renamed Side by Side — provided extra bedding for the women. Then, at the end of April, Cameron and the group moved to San Rafael’s Gerstle Park neighborhood, to a home they called the “Fairy Palace” because it was luxurious compared with the seminary barn. The house, at 3 Bayview, built in 1889, is still there today.
After about six months in the house, the group attracted the attention of shipping magnate Robert Dollar, who that same year purchased a nearby mansion he renamed Falkirk, after the town in Scotland where he was born. A Presbyterian like Cameron, Dollar was a leader in trade between China and the U.S. and helped fund institutions across Marin, including Sunny Hills, the Theological Seminary and a home for boys; he also donated the land that today is San Rafael’s Boyd Park.
As the rainy season of 1906 approached, Cameron realized she needed something bigger than the “Fairy Palace” to house and educate the young people, many of them previously traumatized, in her care. Encountering resistance from Marin landlords nervous about renting to such a large group of Chinese girls and women, she moved the group temporarily to Oakland. The daughter of a Scottish sheep farmer who’d suffered hardships in her life, Cameron displayed resilience and grit to fight the era’s widespread racism toward the Chinese.
Meanwhile, Robert Dollar and his wife, Margaret Proudfoot Dollar, joined forces with other prominent supporters, such as New York philanthropist Grace Dodge and Chicago inventor Cyrus McCormick; they would later help finance rebuilding of the mission home at 920 Sacramento Street in San Francisco. The Dollar family also funded the design of a second Chinese “mission home” by the famed architect Julia Morgan in Oakland. Intended to house younger residents, the second building became known as the Ming Quong Home for Chinese Girls. It was purchased and donated to Mills College in 1936.
I also discovered another Marin connection to the Occidental Mission Home: John H. “Jack” Manion. Manion had been born in my hometown of Ross 30 years before the group moved temporarily to the area following the earthquake and he worked closely with Cameron and the Mission Home in the 1920s and 1930s, helping to reduce human trafficking and curtail the tong wars during that time.
Cameron never married or had her own children, though many of the girls in her care came to call her “Mama” or “Lo Mo” and she referred to them as her daughters. Among my biggest surprises is that one of Cameron’s closest living relatives, her grand-niece Ann Cameron, is a resident of Corte Madera. Ann kindly shared a trunk-load of family letters, photographs and memorabilia with me. She later gifted this material to UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library as a possible addition to its large collection of materials documenting the story of Chinese immigrants in California.
Ann also shared with me her memories of “Auntie Wu,” a Mission Home worker she and her brother and sister came to know and love. Her full name was Tien Fuh Wu and she’d been sold by her father to pay his gambling debts when she was a child. Abused by her owners, she eventually came to the attention of the Mission Home workers and was brought to live at 920 Sacramento Street, initially as a sewing teacher, about 15 months before Cameron arrived there.
Cameron and Wu eventually became friends and colleagues, working alongside each other at the home for more than four decades. As Cameron grew sterner in her old age, Wu grew softer: she’d bring Cameron’s nieces and nephew Chinese food on their birthdays and arrange window seats for them to see the annual Chinese lunar New Year parade.
Growing up in Marin, I had probably driven or biked past the seminary, Falkirk, 3 Bayview and Ann Cameron’s house in Corte Madera a hundred times without knowing much about the history of these places. But Marin played a key role in providing a refuge to thousands of survivors of the 1906 disaster, including Cameron and her earthquake refugees — who found here not only temporary safety, but lasting connections.
A launch party for The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slaver y in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Penguin Random House) will be held at Book Passage in CorteMadera on Thursday, May 16, at 7 p.m.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “Seeking Refuge”.