Like frontier movie sets plucked from a Hollywood studio and carelessly dropped 8,000 miles away, three weathered and sagging houses replete with overhanging balconies and wooden sidewalks nestle incongruously among the once-resplendent but now fading Turkish Ottoman villas in this ancient port city.

If there was ever any doubt that 19th century Americans lived here it is dispelled by the rusting hitching post in front of one house, a keepsake no doubt transported to Palestine to alleviate homesickness.

The neighborhood is lower middle class Israeli now, sprinkled with a Lutheran church and a youth hostel. But in 1866, it was a struggling colony of American mystics, one of several groups that came to the Holy Land convinced that Armageddon was at hand and that they would be present for the second coming of the Messiah.

Plagued by diseases, Bedouin raiders, suspicious Turkish bureaucrats and internecine squabbling, most of the Holy Land colonists returned to America defeated, disillusioned and impoverished, certain that Palestine was too harsh a place for anybody but Arabs to survive.

But one group settled in Jerusalem with no mystical expectations of Armageddon or the Messiah's return, and it not only survived but it flourished through the Turkish-sultans, two world wars, the creation of the modern state of Israel and five bitter wars between Arabs and Jews.

It is the American colony of Jerusalem, which celebrated its centennial recently with a gathering from around the world of the descendents of Horatio G. Spafford, a Chicago lawyer and businessman, and his wife, Anna Spafford, who turned a personal tragedy into a lifelong humantarian enterprise in Palestine.

The legacies of the Spaffords, who came to Palestine after their four daughters were drowned in a shipwreck in the Atlantic, include the Spafford Memorial Children's Hospital in the walled Old City, which is run by a granddaughter, Anna Grace Vester Lind, and the American Colony Hotel, old Palestine's best, which is set in a magnificent 18th century pasha's palace in the Sheik Jarach section of East Jerusalem.

The Spafford family's imprint on old Palestine is deep.

It was a sheet from the children's hospital that provided the white flag used for the surrender of Jerusalem in 1917, when a Christian army marched victoriously into the Holy City for the first time in nearly 1,000 years. The Spaffords befriended and were admired by T. E. Lawrence of Arabia and Field Marshal Lord Allenby; the American Colony was literally in the center of the field of fire during the Arab-Jewish war of 1948 and served as a casuality station, taking no sides in the conflict and demanding Vatican-like sovereignty in exchange.

The Spaffords, who married into an old Palestine family, the Vesters, still thrive and prosper, respected by Israelis and Arabs alike. But for those hardy and visionary Americans who were first drawn to Palestine more than a century ago, life in the Holy Land was not easy.

The first American colony in Palestine was established by a Philadelphia matron, Clorinda S. Minor, who apparently was influenced by an apocalypse-preaching movement called the Millerites, according to Mordechai Naor, an Israeli historian who has written 16 books on Palestine and is writing another on the American colonies here.

In an interview, Naor said that Minor brought a few dozen followers to Jaffa, and settled on a small hillock named Mount of Hope in what is now central Tel Aviv but which then was a desolate stretch of sand dunes. Although the first Americans tried to convert Jews to Christianity, they seemed to have little regard for them.

Herman Melville, who visited the colony in 1857 and wrote about it in his "Journal of a Visit to Europe and the Levant," quoted a Mr. and Mrs. Dixon as saying they would not hire Jews. The Dixons, not suspecting the future development of the modern state of Israel, told Melville: "The idea of making farmers out of Jews is in vain. In the first place, Judea is a desert. In the second place, Jews hate farming . . . The gentile Christians must teach them better. The time has come."

Melville, in his characteristically dark manner, concluded that the colony was "half melancholy, half farcical, like the rest of the world." He could not foretell how dark things were to become.

Bedouin raiders attacked the camp in 1858, pillaging, raping and murdering, leaving as one of their victims a German immigrant named John Steinbeck, grandfather of the American novelist. There was an uproar in the U.S. Senate over the massacre, with President Buchanan sending to the Capitol eyewitness accounts he received from the U.S. consul here. An attempt was made to have a Mediterranean-based warship fire on Jaffa as a warning, but the ship's captain said he could not enter the port because of high winds.

As the winds presumably did, the furor died down, and the first American colony -- discouraged and beset by disease -- broke up and returned to the United States in 1858.

Eight years later, a second American colony, led by a self-styled prophet named George Jones Adams, was established in Jaffa.

According to Naor and another Israeli historian, Shlomo Shva, Adams was something akin to the Rev. James Jones of Jonestown, Guyana, although not as violent. A preacher, actor and swindler, Adams gathered 150 Americans from New England and brought them here on a sailing vessel, which carried the dismantled parts of several American-style houses.

"He was a ral crook. He broke promises, took money and even infuriated the Turks. He was a real dictator, and people began sending pathetic letters to the U.S. Congress," Naor said.

"The Jews hoped these people would succeed and stay, because that would prove to the world -- and especially the Jewish diaspora -- that Palestine was something more than an uninhabitable wasteland. But their ordeal was a sad, sad story," Noar added.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens -- Mark Twain -- visited the Jaffa American colony in 1867 and wrote later in his "Innocents Abroad" chronicle that the "sorrowful subjects" had been "shamefully humbugged by the Prophet Adams," Clemens took 40 of the colonists onto his ship, and the settlement broke up soon afterward.

Three families stayed on, including a man named Rolla Floyd, who became Palestine's first foreign tourist guide, Naor said. In that role, he met the Spaffords when they arrived in Jaffa, and helped them set up the American colony in Jerusalem.

At an American colony centennial celebration recently in Jerusalem, Consul General Brandon Grove Jr, recalled a few of the adventures of the Spaffords, the Vesters and the other Chicago families who came to settle the American colony.

The adventures include the 1948 war, when Arab forces took up positions around the American colony and fired at a Jewish convoy on its way to Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. The Arabs could shoot her if they wished, said Bertha Spafford Vester, but "to fire from the shelter of the American colony is the same thing as firing them from a mosque or

In the 1967 Six-Day War, when Jordanian soldiers wanted to use the children's hospital as a sniper post, Anna Grace Spafford Lind refused, slamming the door in their faces and then sitting down to tea. When her tea was interrupted by a storm of Israeli troops breaking into the Old City, and a direct hit on her roof by a shell, Lind invited the Israelis inside for tea. One said, "It was like going from hell into heaven."

Said Grove, "Theirs was an extraordinary chapter in the turbulent history of the Holy Land. These courageous people will not soon be forgotten."