Quick, what’s the first things that come to mind on mention of California in the mid 1800s? Gold Rush? Sutter’s Mill? 49ers? Staking a claim? Drunks? Soiled Doves? Lawlessness?
How about adding the Young Men’s Christian Association. As strange as it sounds, it’s true, that on the night of July 18, 1853—five-and-a-half years after James W. Marshall found gold at Sutter’s Mill—a group of 64 men met at the Pine Street Baptist Church in San Francisco to organize the pioneer association on the West Coast. The idea of a safe, spiritually-uplifting place for young men had been born in London in 1841, and spread to Boston in 1852. And now it spread to a place choking with young men.
The gold rush—lasting just under a decade—produced the largest mass migration in American history. Some 300,000 men (and a few women) flooded into California seeking their riches. San Francisco, for instance, had just 200 residents in 1846, but 36,000 by 1852. There was so much gold—some 750,000 pounds were extracted—that California became the country’s jewel. It went from an “unorganized territory” in 1849 to the 31st state in 1850–one of the few to go directly to statehood.
At statehood, the average age of men in California was 25 years. “This presented an ideal situation” for the YMCA, notes “The YMCA on the Western Frontier” by Rudy Abrecht. He reports that within a week of the first meeting, membership had grown to 88.
The members were “anxious to advance the cause of Christ and to promote a spirit of religious inquiry, exalt piety and Christian fellowship among the young men of California,” read its founding resolution.
The original association was open to men under 40 who belonged to an evangelical church. But eventually the association admitted women, and perhaps most historically significant, Chinese men—making it one of the first organizations in the nation with the courage to buck the national campaign against Chinese. It was obviously concerned about the drinking habits of its members, with an early resolution urging temperance in this “land of the vine.” Leaders lobbied the legislature to pass a law to suppress gambling establishments and Sunday “amusements.” They also worked to create a city hospital for victims of smallpox and “a persistent campaign to urge the State Legislature to provide a chaplain for the state prison.” Much of their efforts were to find facilities suitable for meetings, and eventually housing, for young men who sought to avoid “the evils of the saloon.”
The San Francisco YMCA became the state’s leader as the movement spread to other towns. Today, the YMCA—as well as its sister organization, the YWCA—is a fixture in every American city of size.