1940s: Growing up near China Camp

Walk memory lane with Lura Simonds Thorp

Decades ago, before China Camp was a state park, neighboring families would come to the village and surrounding hills. Recently, on a sunny day at China Camp Point, we met Lura Simonds Thorp, a retired schoolteacher whose lively nature, snappy wit, and bright smile belie her 80-plus years. Back in the 1940s and ’50s, Lura lived in San Rafael’s Santa Venetia neighborhood, which borders the northwest side of the park. Though Lura now lives in Woodacre, she still walks the trails at China Camp. Here, she shares her memories of the area, and why it’s still special to her all these years later.

When were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born in 1942, and we moved to Vendola drive in Santa Venetia in 1944 or ’45. We lived there for about eight years. My father taught at Tamalpais High School and then Drake [now Archie Williams] High School. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. My brother was three years older. 

What do you remember about coming to China Camp back then?

I’d ride my bike out to the village. I think the road was paved but I’m not sure. Sometimes I went by myself, sometimes with friends. I was probably eight or nine years old. We would go out to get shrimp—I think it was 20 cents a pound. I remember thinking that the people I got it from seemed like scary, strong characters. I think one lady wore a hairnet. 

It was hard to ride home with the shrimp because I didn’t have a basket on my bike and I had to hold the bag and it was heavy. I’d get home and we’d sit around the table and shell shrimp. 

Did you come out to the village with your family?

My dad had a sailboat at the house and we’d sail over to China Camp. There used to be a boat that was stranded out there and we’d climb on it. My dad built a house in San Anselmo and we moved there; he lived there until he was 96½. But we liked to come back here. Over the years, I would bring Dad out to China Camp and we’d have a picnic.

In the ’40s, the movie Blood Alley with John Wayne and Lauren Bacall was shot at the village. Do you remember that happening?

When they shot the movie, they built the face of the Great Wall of China up on the hill above the village. Just the face—not the whole thing. I think it was made out of plaster. We all remember seeing that. I don’t remember seeing any of the cast or crew; I just remember it was a big deal that they were shooting the movie there.

Any other childhood memories here?

My mother started the Presbyterian church in Santa Venetia, and we used to have Easter Sunday services on China Camp Point. People would sing and take in the view of the bay and the clouds. It was a big deal. 

Now you live in Woodacre in West Marin. Why do you keep coming back to China Camp?

From Woodacre, we go to the ocean at least once a week. But I like to see the bay too. The view from Turtle Back Trail, looking across the bay—it’s incredible. I never run into many people out there. When I do meet tourists, I talk to them and tell them about China Camp. For me, it’s about the beauty, and the memories.—as told to Harriot Manley/FOCC

photo: harriot manley/focc