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A Century of Commitment

San Francisco

HAVEN AFTER EARTHQUAKE–Salvationists fed refugees at Golden Gate Park in 1906.


by Frances Dingman – 

In 1891, Joseph McFee, captain and part owner of the coastline steamer “Great Victoria,” came ashore in San Francisco to spend a few days and see the sights. Not long after that, he and his wife knelt at the penitent form at San Francisco No. 2 Corps.

Having a concern for the homeless and out-of-work seamen who gathered at the docks, he resigned his position, sold out his interest in the shipping business, and offered his services to The Salvation Army.

That same year, he planned and carried out the first Christmas dinner for the poor ever given on the coast, feeding 1,000 persons. Money was raised by putting a borrowed crab kettle at the ferry wharf and asking for donations. This was the first Christmas kettle.

Within months there was the beginning of a shelter called “The Lifeboat,” where men could get a bath, bed and meals in exchange for work. Jobs were made for the men at first by collecting discards such as wine corks, feathers and rope and making objects for sale.

Lifeboat grows and prospers
Combining both a Food and Shelter Depot and Labor Exchange, the Lifeboat in four years increased its capacity from 60 to 300 lodgers. Many remarkable trophies of grace were captured from among the worst products of the slums of San Francisco through the meetings held in the Lifeboat.

Before being sent East as National Social Service Secretary, McFee had men making the rounds for discarded clothing for the poor. There was a Shoe and Stocking Fund for poor children, as well as a home for old people which housed 300.

“Mr. Sutro’s Mob”
San Francisco Mayor Adolph Sutro, a millionaire who made his fortune in mining, did not distance himself from the poor, even the ragged and hungry of Barbary Coast sidewalks. His pockets were kept full of dimes and quarters, with requests seldom denied. Many of these down-and-outers had been known to Sutro when he was out in the mining fields. Sometimes he would growl at them in a rebuking way and say, “I knew you when you had more money than I had,” but the piece of silver generally came forth.

Sutro had always liked the meal-ticket plan, and gladly patronized any benevolent idea of that sort that popped up. When McFee launched his Lifeboat scheme, Sutro saw that it was good, and bought 1,000 ten-cent tickets, each good for two meals, or a meal and a bunk. At first he handed out the tickets at his office, until the parade got to be more than he could handle during a business day and still do his job as mayor. The news got around. In three days a second thousand tickets were bought. Meanwhile, the mob grew.

McFee visited with the soldier who took tickets at the Lifeboat, and quickly spotted two or three fellows dropping back into the line as often as they could. Informed that some of the bums were “working him,” Sutro was disappointed.

Sutro and the Army’s Founder had many of the same interests and behavior patterns. When Booth visited his home in San Francisco, Sutro would have many questions ranging from Army policies in dealing with the homeless and released prisoners to problems of labor and capital. Booth had more than good stories to tell; he had the facts and figures which his host liked. That is one reason Sutro trusted The Salvation Army.

In despair, he asked the Army if it would handle the tickets. Soon his outer door bore the notice: “Meal tickets contributed by Sutro will be issued at the Salvation Army Food and Shelter Depot, southeast corner Kearny and Sacramento Streets, at 3 p.m. daily.” Sutro after that “played a limit” of 100 tickets a day, and concluded that business principles and benevolence could go well together.


MAYOR ADOLPH SUTRO–Mining millionaire, impressed by William Booth’s views, entrusted the Army with distribution of large charity donations.

Funds always needed
In the March 6, 1897, Pacific Coast War Cry, Major Ashley Pebbles of the Salvation Army Relief Office pleaded, “We are getting very short of everything. We especially need food and fuel; but our stock of clothing is giving out also.” A rule requiring applicants to bring certificates from people of good reputation was helping to stem the tide of the professional beggars who had begun to overwhelm them. He mentioned that in addition to food, coal and wood, over $5,000 worth of used clothing had been given out in the last 30 days. Two cobblers were at work, repairing about 60 pairs of shoes a day, while the tailoring department altered and repaired about 100 garments a day. Clothing was washed before being sent out.

The shelter grew, and moved into the facilities of the former Olympic Athletic Association, and, according to the War Cry, “where men used to engage in prize fighting, souls were being born into the Kingdom of God.”

A Rescue Home had been among the Army’s first social projects. A Women’s Food and Shelter Depot had also been operating for several years, serving both temporal and spiritual needs for those who otherwise would have had a hard time making ends meet.

Save the children…
The first children’s home was opened in November 1893, in a building at the corner of Second and Silver Streets. Rent of $40 a month was paid for a year by a kind lady donor, and furniture came “piece by piece” until there was little left to buy. “Was there need of this home?” wrote Mrs. Lt. Colonel Keppel, wife of the District Officer. “Why, we could have filled it twice every week if we had been able to stretch the walls. We had to be so careful and sort out the most needy, hungry cases…” From 20 to 35 children occupied the home for a year until a larger and better home was located around the corner.

This new home found good support from the public and accommodated more than 40 children until 1904, when the Boys and Girls’ Home was opened at Lytton Springs, near Healdsburg.

Emergency and disaster work
The Christian witness of The Salvation Army is most evident in time of trouble. As soon as possible after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the city was put under martial law. The government did all official relief work through the Red Cross, and Salvationists were dispatched to various camps and hospitals to help. The teams of the Industrial Department carried supplies from one camp to another and helped to evacuate civilians in the path of flames. Great crowds were carried by streetcar to the relief camp at Beulah Park, a busy tent city with several hundred refugees. Chinatown Corps soldiers did heroic service as cooks, though their corps was completely destroyed. Since that time, while not only the ills of poverty, but fires, earthquakes, floods and riots plague San Francisco, the Army reaches out to meet the needs of the moment.

Sources: Pacific Coast War Cry;
Adolph Sutro, by Robert E. Stewart.


Photos courtesy Western Territorial Museum

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