Early History of Trinity Church By William Neely Thompson
Composed in Sept. 1889; given to The Rt. Rev. Kip, first Episcopal Bishop of California, who subsequently gave it to the Rt. Rev. Nichols, the second Episcopal Bishop of California, who gave it to
Trinity Episcopal Church for its archives
Retyped and digitized from the original, exactly as the original is written, by Jennifer Dwight, Archivist of Trinity-St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, August 31, 2023
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From overwork and exposure at the great fire in San Francisco in May, 1851, I was taken with a very severe fever. I think the doctors called it a species of typhoid fever. Doctor Hastings said to me one day, “I have done for you about all I can do. If you want to live, you must get away from this tide water (over which my room then was) get on to the hills where the air is pure, and must have a woman to nurse you.”
That was a little rough, as there were not two dozen women in San Francisco, and I did not know one of them; so I wondered what I was to do next, for I certainly wanted to live. I thought of a friend, (Capt. Spaulding) a ladies’ man who was likely to know all the ladies in the town; so I sent for him and told him what the Doctor had said. He was a dear, glorious fellow as will be seen soon. He walked up and down the room for some time and then he said, – “I’ll see”. I waited for him some hours, and began to think my friend had failed me, when he came into the room and said, “I have a carriage at the door, and some men to carry you down and put you in it.” I asked him no questions; I did not have the energy; so I was carried away and brought up at a house on the hill more than a mile away, at the corner of Valligo and Stockton Streets where I was carried in and put to bed. I found afterwards that I was in the house of the Rev. Flavel S. Mines, the Rector of Holy Trinity Church. Mr. Mines had come to California in July 1849 and started the first Episcopal Church of California. Their first services were held at the house of Capt. Merritt and soon thereafter they built a barn of a place for a Church on Powell Street at the southwest corner of Jackson.
His vestry with the gushing, sanguine hopes of Californians of that time, voted to pay him a salary of $6,000 a year, and advised him to return to New York and bring out his family, which he did.
He went home in ‘50 and came out with them in May ’51, on the steamer Panama commanded by Captain Watkins. Capt. Spaulding was a passenger on that ship, hence his acquaintance with Mr. and Mrs. Mines, and many other ladies who came out on that steamer.
When Mr. Mines arrived with his family two great fires, during his absence had swept over San Francisco. His vestry and his congregation were ruined and his prospect for a $6000 salary was nil.
One of his Vestrymen still sanguine beyond any reason for it, met his Rector and his own wife on the steamer as she came into the bay, and took them all to the Union Hotel, the only Hotel then left in the City, and where the board was five dollars per day. As Mr. Mines had with him a family of four besides a servant, this was costly. He soon saw the true situation of affairs and his lessened prospects. His innate honesty and good sense soon taught him that he must look for cheaper quarters, so he had found this empty house. The furniture he supplied for it was very meagre, even for California at that day; a bed for himself and his wife, another for his wife’s mother and his little son, and a shakedown for the servant was all. The furniture for kitchen and dining room was still more scanty.
To this family my friend Capt. Spaulding had gone to find a home and nursing for a sick man. They were Christian, they were kindly, but what could they do; they had a room but no furniture, or else they could take him in and nurse him. They did not even have a bed to offer him.
Capt. Spaulding was equal to this crisis; he said then “My friend will come; I will find a bed and furniture for the room”. While I was waiting the weary hours for Capt. Spaulding to return with an answer to my request on the doctor’s order, he had gone to his own room in another part of the town, and taken all the furniture out of it, and moved it to the house of Mr. Mines, where I was taken and lay for many weeks, but gradually gained strength and full health.
Thus was I introduced into the family of the Clergyman of the first Episcopal Church established in California, and while in that family I saw the poverty of that Clergyman, and his struggles to live and to support his family while establishing that Church, which to-day is the leading Church in San Francisco and the State.
All the above is preliminary to the main statement that follows.
As I have said, his salary had been voted in the vestry to be $6,000 a year. On that assurance he had gone to New York and brought out his family as I have remarked, to find that his Congregation could not pay him the salary voted, or any other sum. They had been burned out, and burned out, and were poor. The barn of a church was not burned up – that was all – and he had no salary assured, not one dollar: how he was to live and support his family, was the great question that confronted him; no money came to him but the drippings into the plate on Sundays. He had some property in vacant lots out of town.
Col. J.D. Stevenson had given him a hundred vara lot at the corner of Folsom and 4th Street, a willow swamp, then of very little saleable value; he had also some other lots of still less value, but nothing upon which he could ever borrow money.
An uncle of his wife, Doctor Da Edgar came out from Staten Island about that time, and as vegetables were very high in San Francisco, the doctor concluded that he would clear the willows off that 100 vara lot and raise vegetables on it for the market, and divide the profit with the owner of the lot. The profits were not overmuch, but they were a little.
Mr. Mines was a loveable, magnetic man and made friends with all who came in contact with him. Amongst them some seafaring men gave him chickens, of aristocratic lineage, which he put on the lot, hoping to sell eggs and to raise high bred chickens and sell them.
Another friend, Capt. Ottinger then of the Pacific Mail Steamer sent him a high bred sow that would have pigs that he might sell. I remained in the house as a boarder after I had got over the fever. I used to be amused to hear Dr. Edgar when he came up to the house and made his reports now and again, “Well, one hen has a lot of chickens and the sow has a lot of fine pigs”. Then again in a few days with doleful face he would tell how the sow had eaten up her pigs; then in a few days more tell how the chickens were all dying – young and old; “there must be some poison around the salt air or salt in the ground”, – and so the rector’s prospects of income from the gifts of his friends deposited one by one.
In the meantime the vigilance committee of 1851 was organized and went into active work. Their first subject was Jenkins who was arrested one evening in early June for setting fire to a building on long wharf and for stealing a small iron safe from it.
After a trial he was condemned to be hanged at midnight on the Plaza. Jenkins was a Sidney convict. When told he must die, he was asked if he would have aid of a Clergyman, he said “Yes”. When asked of what Church, he said “the Church of England of course”. So a sub-committee was appointed to ask Mr. Mines to visit and prepare him for death or console him. When the Committee called at his house, about eleven o’clock that cold and foggy night and knocked at the door, his wife came to an upper window to inquire what was wanted. When told a man was to die in an hour and wanted aid of a clergyman, she said “Mr. Mines cannot go; he has been spitting blood (he was really dying then of consumption) and is now very sick and in bed”. But Mr. Mines, as soon as he heard what was wanted of him said “I am coming”. And he did come; sick as he was, he walked a mile through the cold fog of that night to minister to a dying man, so lionhearted he was in the line of duty.
After that he became the Chaplain of the Vigilance Committee and visited and prayed with James Stuart, and with Whittaker and McKensie – all of whom were hanged.
The Committee was vilified by many of the lawyers of San Francisco; – by some because they thought conscientiously a great wrong was being done by the trial and the execution of men outside of the law – and by some others because they felt their occupation was gone. All poured the most bitter vials of their wrath upon Mr. Mines – a clergyman, who would give sanction to such unlawful proceedings.
He bore all the vilification like his great Master, answering nothing; with him the motive or the action of the Committee was not in question; he need not approve or disapprove; his business was with the condemned who were about to die. In that great office he bore himself so bravely as in the case of Jenkins, and with such prudent pious devotion as in the case of Stuart, as won the affection of the Committee. James Stuart was no common criminal. The name was assumed; I suppose that Mr. Mines was the only man in California who knew Stuart’s true name.
All he would ever say when asked about it was “the man belonged to a very respectable English family; he gave me the pledge of secrecy the name which he said he had disgraced, and desired that his family should not know the manner of his ending”. True to his promise the secret died with Mr. Mines. Stuart’s family never knew where or how he died, and the world never knew the family he disgraced. I have said thus much about Mr. Mines’ connection with the Vigilance Committee, made up as it was, of the best and most prominent men of San Francisco, because it had somewhat to do with the growth of Trinity Church as will be seen further on.
As I have said, the prospects of the Church of the Holy Trinity were far from good.
One Sunday evening, after service, during the early summer, I think late in June, Mr. Mines gave out a notice that the Vestry had a proposition to suggest in regard to the building of a new Church, and asked the Congregation to wait and hear it and to render such assistance in carrying out the project as they could. Accordingly, most of the congregation, not a large one, waited and listened to the report
and the suggestions of the Vestry. It was read by Mr. Pickett, one of the vestrymen. The proposition was to build a stone church on the present site on the hill, first because it being out of the populated part of the town it would escape the fires – and secondly, to be built of stone to resist the fires if they did pass that way.
The plan would have involved an expenditure of not less than $150,000.
If the vestry and the whole congregation had parted with all their worldly substance and put it in a pool it would not have equalled that sum. The plan was not only impracticable but it was absurd. So Mr. Mines went home with nothing but the christian’s hope to buoy him up.
Then it was that a layman who had been present and heard the proposed plan suggested a friend but not of his congregation called upon him and said, Mr. Mines if you are to build a church you must go outside of your vestry for the means to do it; they have neither the means, nor the way to raise the means. Their plan of a church is an impossibility – the place of your church is not fit – the people avoid the hills more and more and are doing business down town and are living more and more in the valleys – in Happy Valley and Pleasant Valley, from Market Street to Folsom Street – your church should be nearer the business of the town, nearer where the people live – you have many friends, who are not church men and you are making more friends amongst the members of the Vigilance Committee, and they will help you. Suppose you put yourself in the hands of the ladies of the parish, cut loose from your vestry, have the ladies work up materials, and solicit their friends to work up materials and get up a fair; they may be able to get money enough to buy a lot down town. Then, as for the Church, there is a great quantity of english corrugated iron in the City, which is dull of sale and can be bought cheap; with that to cover in the sides and roof, only requiring rough timber and plaster, you can build a good size church for $5,000. “But,” he said, “how are we to live in the meantime?” The layman answered him, “As you do now – on what your people live – you have made friends enough, and mostly outside the church who
will rent say fifty pews at $150 a year; they will pay in advance $100 that will build the church; the other $50 will be paid when the church is built and will go towards your salary for the first year; after that it will be easy enough. He looked with favor upon the idea and adopted it.
The next Sunday he gave notice that he proposed to build a church, asked the help of the ladies of the congregation, and suggested the fair and the purchase of the lot. The ladies took up the suggestion with enthusiasm. What! A ladies’ fair in San Francisco in ’51, it was just the thing – splendid – it was social, and there was not too much social life amongst a population of men, burned out by fires; a ladies fair, when ladies were so few, – it sounded of home in the far away east – it was delightful. The ladies of the Parish, led by the Rector’s wife went into the scheme with their whole hearts and solicited other ladies of other churches and of no church to join them, in making up materials for the first fair in San Francisco. I think there were very few ladies in the City who did not have a hand in the fairs that furnished the money which purchased the lot on which Trinity Church was built.
In the meantime, Mr. Mines moved his family from Valligo and Stockton Streets to Happy Valley, and took in such boarders as his family could make room for.
The first fair was held early in the Autumn of ’51, and the second one about Christmas time of the same year. At these two fairs the ladies raised $4,000, and with it bought from Capt. I. L. Folsom the 50 vara lot on Pine Street between Kearney and Montgomery Streets. Capt. Folsom was rich in real estate – he was a churchman and took a deep interest in the work of the ladies and in the object of it.
Although the lot was worth $6,000 at the time, he sold it for $4,000, as stated, making the church a gift of $2,000.
The next thing was to rent the pews in a church not yet built; that was soon done, mostly to friends the rector had made in the Vigilance Committee, and between the first of the year ’52 and Easter of that year, the church was completed, and church and lot were paid for and were clear and free of
debt. In the meantime the health of Mr. Mines was fast giving way; he preached his first sermon in the new church on Easter day; he appeared in the Church afterward, but I think he never preached again; he died in the August following. (So ended the life of the author of “the Presbyterian Clergyman looking for the church”, – the building up of Trinity Parish being his last crowning work).
In organizing the church, and in electing a vestry at Easter ’52, for reasons of his own he cut entirely loose from the old church on the hill “The Holy Trinity” and called the new church “Trinity Church”. In selecting whom he preferred to act as vestrymen, he named only two of his old vestrymen. Mr. Gilman, a lawyer from Baltimore, and Capt. E. D. Keyes of the U. S. Army, now Gen’l Keyes; these two he named as Wardens; the balance of the vestry were made up of unitarians, congregationalists, presbyterians, and of no church but all of them, as well as many of the ladies who assisted at the fairs became churchmen and church women; many of them died as such long since.
The only members of that first vestry who are now living are General Keyes and myself.
Before Mr. Mines died, an old gentleman, the Rev. Orange Clark, supplied the pulpit for a time, and then a Rev. Mr. Moore was employed for some months, until we could send east for a permanent Rector. The Rev. C. B. Wyatt was called, and he came out and took charge of the church in the spring of ’53. While we were waiting an answer from Mr. Wyatt, Mr. Moore thought the place would suit him as permanent Rector, and to that end did some mischievous and rather unchristian work; so much so, that the Vestry, after consulting with the Revs. Drs. Clark, Ver Mehr, and Morgan, decided to lock up the church for a few Sundays before Mr. Wyatt arrived. Soon after Mr. Wyatt took charge, the church was enlarged. After a few years Mr. Wyatt returned to the east and the Rev. S. C. Twall was called. He remained a few years and returned to the east, and Mr. Wyatt was called back again.
The church and lot costing so little was sold about the year 1865 for $90,000; with that money, the present Trinity Church was built.
The ground upon which the old church stood is now used for a market house.
Although the church was left free of debt during the administration of its first rectors, and its valuable property has cost its late worshippers but very little, it has a wonderful faculty of getting into debt.
When Dr. now Bishop T. B. Lyman was its rector, he paid off a debt of over $20,000 and now I hear that a proposition is pending to sell the property it occupies at present, at a price much above its cost, and to build again on cheaper ground.
Although Mr. Mines lived a poor man, the lots that were given to him appreciated in value, so that at the time of his death he felt that he had something to leave. They brought afterwards about
$12,000. He left in his will, which may be found of record in San Francisco $500, as he stated, as a small beginning for a fund the interest of which was to be devoted to the support of the poor old ladies of the Parish.
I have heard that the above sum with considerable interest has merged into the property of the Church and has lost its entity.
Wm. N. T.