article picture

Eureka Benevolent Society and Henry Mauser in San Francisco

by Cynthia Cox

When the ground started shaking at 5:12 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18, 1906, the three-story frame building at 436 O’Farrell, which housed the administrative offices of the Eureka Benevolent Society, was empty of workers, so no lives were lost at the site. However, after the fire raged throughout so much of San Francisco on that inauspicious day and the two that followed, only portions of the front and rear exterior walls remained standing.

Having to start over was nothing new for the members of the Eureka, first organized in 1850 to provide financial assistance to “Israelites landing here, broken in health or destitute of means.” Founder August Helbing, only 25 years old when he convinced a dozen fellow Bavarian Jews to join him in this charitable venture, had found it politically expedient to flee Germany for the U.S. after the failure of the 1848 liberal revolution he supported. His subsequent attempts to establish himself in business in Gold Rush San Francisco were set back by four separate fires that burned out first his dry goods firm and then the crockery business he opened in the mistaken hope that this inventory would be less susceptible to loss by conflagration.

It was, in fact, Meyer, Helbing and Co. who provided the newly arrived Adolph Sutro with a place under the counter to sleep and to store the trunks he had arrived with in ex-change for acting as the business’s night “fire watcher,” re-sponsible for saving the merchandise from both flame and looting if the need arose. (Fortunately for Sutro – and also for the proprietors – there was no such emergency during his short tenure at the store.)

August Helbing persevered against the odds and ultimately became quite successful, serving as a much-admired community leader and the Eureka’s president five different terms. As he flourished so did the organization and, when he died in 1896, he left behind a charity with 1000 members who were dispensing $200,000 annually to assist Jews in need. Being financially sound 50 years after its founding, the society decided to build a headquarters worthy of its stature in the community.

In 1900 the Eureka acquired a plot of land on O’Farrell Street near Taylor, paying the estate of Mina D. Solomon the sum of $10,500, and set about hiring firms to construct a three-story building on the site. On April 10th contracts totaling $6,525 were finalized and work soon commenced. It obviously went quickly and smoothly, as the building had passed inspection by the autumn of that year. Five and a half years later, however, only the ruins remained.

The need for services following the catastrophe grew dramatically, and the Eureka continued to provide critical aid as people rebuilt their lives and their homes. On July 9, 1906, the society arranged to rent the first floor of a three-story building at 1768 O’Farrell, between Fillmore and Steiner, for an 18-month period at $70 per month. While they occupied these temporary quarters they planned for a new building on the site of their burned-out shell, entering into a series of contracts that totaled $19,499.02, a roughly three-fold increase from the costs of the earlier structure. Architects Lansburgh & Joseph, “being thoroughly in sympathy with the work of the Eureka Benevolent Society,” offered their services at cost.

Early in the spring of 1910 another handsome building was ready for occupancy. Although the Eureka eventually moved to new quarters at the corner of Post and Scott Streets in the early 1930s, the building erected at 436 O’Farrell still stands, with an A-One car rental agency currently occupying its ground floor. And the society – although now renamed Jewish Family and Children’s Services – still meets the needs of thousands of people in San Francisco, on the Peninsula, and in Marin and Sonoma Counties each year, continuing the legacy established by August Helbing and his cohorts 155 years ago.

Hooray for Henry!

How PHOA Superintendent Henry Mauser “Saved the Day”

I trust I’m not the only Baby Boomer with fond memories of Saturday mornings spent in front of the TV in the late 1950’s. Although my personal favorites were Howdy Doody, Shari Lewis and Lambchop, Circus Boy and Fury, every child of that era surely recognized the cartoon figure of Mighty Mouse, with his signature cry of “Here I come to save the day!”

I must admit that’s what I always think of when I read the report that Henry Mauser, super-intendent of the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum in San Francisco, submitted to the Board of Directors about the events of April 18, 1906, and the days that followed. Founded in 1871, the orphanage built in 1876 on the block bounded by Divisadero and Scott, Hayes and Grove housed children whose families couldn’t care for them.

Although I have rearranged the order for the sake of clarity, following are some of the most vivid excerpts from Henry Mauser’s first-hand account of the actions he took in response to the terrible earthquake that badly damaged much of this three-story orphanage at Alamo Square, as presented to the board on May 16, 1906:

•On the morning of the earthquake I managed to break open one of the doors of my apartments, which were all jammed, and found that all my assistants were likewise imprisoned in their rooms, and tools had to be brought to release them.

•The kitchen chimney with its enormous weight of about ten tons fell on the roof and skylight of the kitchen and completely wrecked that portion of the buildings. The roaring fire was in our range at the time, but our heavy 20 gallon pots filled with water saved our building from catching fire. Steam and hot water flooded the kitchen. I immediately had the water, gas and electricity turned off, and hastily cleared the stove of all woodwork, and had the ceiling braced up as well as I could.

•Twenty-five feet of the big six-foot brick smoke stack was cut through at the edge of the roof, but it did not fall… The smoke stack kept me awake nights and I determined to get it down. I sent around to the fire company to try and have them take it down for us, but they would [do] nothing. I then endeavored to drag it down …but the rope parted like a piece of thread.

•That night, we had a severe earthquake and some of the brick fell. Every instant…I feared that the chimney would come down upon us. The following morning it rained but notwith-standing…we pulled the stack down in such a way that the only damage done was to the concrete sidewalk between the brick building and gymnasium.

•I built a six foot military trench in the sand to the north of the brick building, and as it was impossible for our cooks to handle such an outdoor fire, I was compelled to do the cooking myself. We had about 50 extra people on the premises to whom we had given temporary shelter, including the mechanics I had employed, whom I had to feed in order to have them work…On April 27th I went to the Presidio and secured two field ranges, and we have managed since that time fairly well with the cooking.


As for the 190 wards so suddenly awakened at 5:12 on that frightening morning:

•There was absolutely no panic among the children and I am very proud of them. They dressed quickly under orders and went to their play rooms. Considering the building unsafe, for two nights we all camped out on the grass. The third day being terribly moist and foggy, we occupied…our Gymnasium Hall. The children, myself, and assistants are still on the floor in the gymnasium, but we hope in a few days to get back to the main building.


Mauser concluded his report:

•Notwithstanding the terrible calamity that has visited our city, the frightful shock to all of us from the earthquake and the dread of fire, the general health of our wards during the past month has been excellent. Words are inadequate to express our anxiety and cares during this trying period. Our responsibilities have been very heavy and we trust with the help of God that we have met them as best we could.


Superintendent Henry Mauser more than met his responsibilities – prying open his staff’s doors, saving the building from catching on fire, safely bringing down the worrisome smoke stack, cooking for approximately 250 people for over a month, and more. Like the heroic but imaginary Mighty Mouse of my childhood, in real life “Mighty Mauser” indeed “saved the day” for the PHOA children under his care in 1906!

AUTHOR’S NOTE: GuideLines co-editor Gail MacGowan and I both work in the Development Department of JFCS, the successor agency of both the Eureka Benevolent Society and the Pacific Hebrew Orphan and Home Society.

article picture

Just this shell remained of the Eureka Benevolent Society's O'Farrell Street building after the 1906 quake and fire. Photo courtesy of Jewish Family and Children's Services.

article picture

Jewish Pioneer August Helbing. Photo courtesy of Jewish Family and Children's Services.

article picture

The contractors for the 1900 building. Document courtesy of Jewish Family and Children's Services.

article picture

The children and staff of the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum slept on their gymnasium floor for more than a month after the 1906 earthquake and firestorm. Photo courtesy of Jewish Family and Children's Services

article picture

"Mighty" Henry Mauser Photo courtesy of Jewish Family and Children's Services

article picture

The orphanage at 600 Divisadero. Photo courtesy of Jewish Family and Children's Services

Send comments and questions to guidelines@sfcityguides.org
Material of San Francisco City Guides. Please give credit to the author and SF City Guides if referenced or reproduced.