In the summer of 2019, construction crews working near the northeastern corner of San Francisco’s Lincoln Park dug up something they weren’t expecting: a coffin.
The workers were creating new bioswales along El Camino Del Mar, designed to divert stormwater during heavy rains and keep the tony Sea Cliff neighborhood from flooding. In the process, and under the watchful eye of an archaeologist hired by the city, they would end up uncovering the graves of at least 20 people, dating back to the end of the 19th century.
A secret lies beneath the manicured lawns of Lincoln Park Golf Course. These gentle slopes were once the home of one of San Francisco’s largest graveyards. Between 1870 and about 1900, 29,000 people were buried in Golden Gate Cemetery, named for its proximity to the entrance to San Francisco Bay, though most people called it City Cemetery. The majority were new burials, although a few hundred had been relocated from the city’s earlier cemeteries. And many of City Cemetery’s graves stayed where they were when other cemeteries in San Francisco eventually were moved out of town. Somewhere between 10,000 and 22,000 are still there, including the ones the bioswale workers found. Those thousands of graves hold the stories of San Francisco’s builders, of immigrants and low-income laborers, many of whom died destitute and alone. They tell a tale of how San Francisco has, again and again, favored its wealthy and privileged residents over its poor and marginalized ones.
This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
At first, there was no way of knowing whom the graves on El Camino Del Mar belonged to. City Cemetery’s grave markers were removed more than a century ago, when the burial ground closed. The city didn’t have a detailed map of the 200-acre cemetery, which contained over two dozen plots that belonged to different community organizations—often nonprofits that helped take financial care of members and their families. Many of them were Chinese and were overseen by the Chinese Six Companies, a group of benevolent associations formed in the 19th century. As archaeologists studied the remains, they reached out to historians Alex Ryder and John Martini, who were working on reconstructing a City Cemetery map—partly for situations just like this.
As it turned out, the area where workers found the bones had once belonged to the French Mutual Benevolent Society of San Francisco. A number of the skeletons showed signs of autopsies and other postmortem medical studies, which were illegal in the 19th century. And one of the skulls had apparently been pierced by a gunshot. A .44-caliber bullet from a Winchester pistol was rattling around inside it.
Ryder says the research team is close to identifying whose skull it was. But local newspaper archives may hold important clues: On January 15, 1896, the San Francisco Call told the story of a French doctor, E.L. Molass, who had sailed to New York on a steamer called S.S. La Bretagne, then traveled overland to San Francisco, where he arrived in late December. Molass was suffering from tuberculosis and hoped the California climate would cure him; apparently he didn’t know about the city’s brutal fog and wind. He wound up in the French Hospital, but “sickness and despondency” overtook him, the newspaper reported. On January 14, 1896, he “sent a bullet into his right ear.”
The ground beneath Lincoln Park Golf Course contains thousands of such stories, often involving San Franciscans who died penniless, buried at the city’s expense.
Just two massive cemetery markers still stand among the golf course tees. One, erected by the Ladies’ Seamen’s Friend Society of the Port of San Francisco, is a large obelisk visible from the parking lot of the Legion of Honor museum. The other, the gateway-like Kong Chow funerary monument, was once a central part of a Chinese plot in City Cemetery.
Woody LaBounty, a longtime San Francisco historian, knew that City Cemetery had a singular story to tell about San Francisco’s complex past. When Connie Chan was elected supervisor of District 1, which includes Lincoln Park, in 2020, LaBounty told her about the presence of the historic cemetery and encouraged her to start the process of making it a city landmark. Before that conversation, “I have to be honest: I never knew that’s what it was,” Chan says. She agreed it was worth commemorating and got to work.
LaBounty says that City Cemetery’s silent residents are the people “who built San Francisco, who represent the diversity—socially and ethnically—of San Francisco in the 19th century. They’re the forebears of the place we all call home, and they’ve mostly been forgotten.”
How and why they were forgotten says a lot about San Francisco’s history too.
THE FORSAKEN DEAD
Thomas W. Wood, born in Fairfax, Virginia, was 22 when he enlisted in the U.S. military on June 3, 1847, to fight in the Mexican-American War. He reenlisted numerous times, until he couldn’t anymore. He received his final honorable discharge on November 27, 1881, when a medical board deemed him too worn-out to continue serving. Wood decided to head to San Francisco, even though he didn’t have a home, a job, or any friends lined up. When his $25 ran out, he poisoned himself, the San Francisco Call reported on February 18, 1882. He was 57.
When Wood’s body was found, his pockets contained a “bundle of honorable discharges, nicely tied with red tape, and a number of affectionate letters from a married daughter living near the old home, back in old Virginia.”
Wood’s body remained at the city morgue as folks with the San Francisco coroner’s office attempted to arrange an honorable burial, but many cemeteries would not take him, likely because he had died by suicide. Ultimately, he was interred in City Cemetery “with no one by to say even the poor words ‘dust to dust, ashes to ashes!’ ” Wood’s grave, just off the shores of the Golden Gate, was marked with a white plank bearing only a number—1,116—partially covered in drifting sand.
City Cemetery was the last public burial ground established in San Francisco, which famously shut down and evicted many of its graveyards in the early 20th century. Not counting Indigenous burial grounds, San Francisco saw roughly 30 cemeteries, large and small, official and unofficial, come and go between Spanish colonizers’ arrival in the 1760s and the cemeteries’ ouster to Colma, a dozen miles away, throughout the first half of the 20th century. At first, the city’s burial grounds were compact, spanning a single block at most, but then the gold rush happened. In 1846, two years before San Francisco officially came under U.S. control, about 200 people lived in the small town. But by 1852, its population had exploded to 36,000. More residents meant more death, including from waves of disease like smallpox and typhoid fever, and the city’s existing cemeteries quickly filled up.
But with each new cemetery, poor planning prevailed. Over and over again, city officials found new places to bury the dead, thinking they’d identified a spot so far out in the sticks that nobody would ever want to live next door. Over and over again, they were wrong. It happened with Yerba Buena Cemetery, a 13-acre public burial ground located where San Francisco’s United Nations Plaza, Asian Art Museum, and Main Library stand today. It happened with the massive Masonic, Odd Fellows, and Calvary cemeteries on and around Lone Mountain, which were surrounded by Richmond district NIMBYs within decades. And it happened with City Cemetery.
City Cemetery was meant to be San Francisco’s solution to the problem of Yerba Buena. That old municipal burial ground, which opened in 1850, was full by the mid-1850s, with 7,000 to 9,000 graves, mostly of working-class and Chinese residents. By 1870, the graveyard was falling apart—and located right in the heart of the city, where leaders wanted to build a new city hall. In theory, most of Yerba Buena’s burials would be disinterred and moved to City Cemetery. But in practice, only 267 unidentified graves were documented as being relocated to City Cemetery. Untold thousands likely rest in the old Yerba Buena Cemetery soil, and workers continued to find them anytime they excavated, whether they were building City Hall at Larkin and McAllister Streets in the 1880s or renovating the old Main Library to become the new Asian Art Museum in 2003.
For the new City Cemetery, San Francisco leaders looked for a far-flung spot to bury the dead. When they began considering a plot in the desolate northwestern corner of the city, near Lands End, the property was barren, treeless, and buffeted by strong winds off the Pacific Ocean. Still, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ Outside Lands Committee acknowledged that “a public burial place is a necessity, and…the tract designated was the best for the purpose, and least objectionable of any at our disposal. It is sheltered from the wind to some extent; has a beautiful view; is susceptible of cultivation, and has a firm clayey soil, which is much better in a sanitary point of view than a light or sandy soil.”
As a public burial ground, City Cemetery included significant space to bury San Francisco’s indigent dead. The large Potter’s Field, now beneath and surrounding the Legion of Honor building, took in an estimated 11,000 burials, which the city paid for. These graves were distinguished with no more than a plank painted white, like Thomas W. Wood’s, each marked with a number that indicated the deceased’s place in the burial register.
But those records weren’t perfect. When a San Francisco Call reporter visited the cemetery in February 1882, he asked a gravedigger how many graves there were. The gravedigger replied, “I numbered up to three thousand, and then began with ‘one’ again.” By that time, 4,118 burials had been recorded, but it could have been more; cemetery workers said they sometimes buried two people in one hole.
Not long after City Cemetery opened, local benevolent associations began claiming plots. Among them were the Knights of Pythias, the Grand Army of the Republic, and the Ladies’ Seamen’s Friend Society, a female-run charitable organization that looked after destitute sailors. By 1887, there were 45 sub-cemeteries linked to local societies and associations, including 26 connected to Chinese community groups. More than 10,000 Chinese residents were buried in City Cemetery over its years of operation, making it the largest and most significant burial ground for San Francisco’s Chinese communities, say historians LaBounty and Ryder.
More than 10,000 Chinese residents were buried in City Cemetery over its years of operation.
During the mid- to late 1800s, many Chinese residents in San Francisco didn’t regard local cemeteries as permanent resting places. Most who came to the city planned to stay only long enough to make some money before returning home. Chinese community associations took on the responsibility of burying their brethren in San Francisco if they died there and also handled the task of returning their bones to China. If a body was “buried in a strange land, untended by his family, [the] soul would never stop wandering in the darkness of the other world,” Shih-shan Henry Tsai wrote in The Chinese Experience in America.
Shantang (benevolent society) representatives kept track of graves and arranged for permits to disinter the bodies four years or more after burial. They paid the city $10 per disinterment, $2.50 of which went to the cemetery. Bones were cleaned, if necessary, and sealed in a tin box marked with the name of the deceased. They were stored in Chinatown before sailing to the deceased’s hometown in China. About 6,300 Chinese burials were disinterred and sent home; the rest remain in the earth near the Kong Chow monument, Ryder says.
San Francisco’s Chinese immigrants began arriving in much higher numbers during the gold rush and immediately faced horrific racism. They were wrongly blamed for many disease epidemics, and their cemeteries became targets too. White San Franciscans complained to the city about Chinese burial and exhumation practices and often used the euphemism “abatement of nuisance” as an argument for closing San Francisco’s cemeteries or limiting the activities of Chinese residents. Other times, they didn’t bother with euphemisms; their bigotry was stated openly. The Richmond District Improvement Club was thrilled when the city agreed to close City Cemetery in the late 1890s. In a resolution, the club celebrated “getting rid of this pest-breeding spot and forever remov[ing] from the sight of visitors to the district the pagan rites of scraping the flesh from the bones of deceased Chinese who had been buried there, which to our people was a sickening and dreaded sight, once seen not soon to be forgotten.”
Racism wasn’t the only reason many San Franciscans wanted the cemeteries gone. At the time, it was commonly believed that graveyards spread disease through the air and groundwater, and many of the city’s older burial grounds, which lacked the money for upkeep, had become derelict. More than anything, though, prospectors wanted to cash in on surging property values.
Graves were found nestled amid the plumbing at the Legion of Honor in 1994. The museum turned over about 900 remains to the San Francisco medical examiner.
A DUTY TO THE LIVING
The fight to end San Francisco’s cemeteries was as long as it was messy—and it started before the first graves in City Cemetery were dug. Richmond district residents had begun agitating for the removal of their sepulchral neighbors on Lone Mountain by the end of the 1860s, and by 1901 they’d persuaded municipal leaders to ban further burials anywhere in the city.
“No feeling is more honorable or creditable than respect for the dead,” James “Sunny Jim” Rolph Jr., San Francisco’s mayor from 1911 to 1932, proclaimed in 1914. However, “the duty of government is more to the living than to the dead. We must provide for the expansion of our city.” Eventually, a majority of voters agreed with him. In 1937, they overwhelmingly approved a measure forcing the Lone Mountain cemeteries to relocate their dead elsewhere. An estimated 150,000 graves were moved south, transforming the tiny town of Colma into San Francisco’s personal necropolis.
City Cemetery was different. While Richmond residents were eager to remove the graves and turn the property into a public park, few burials were ultimately moved. Long before voters went to the polls, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors sent notices to every organization with members buried in City Cemetery and set a removal deadline of July 1, 1909. But almost none of these associations had the necessary funds. Likewise, San Francisco didn’t want to pay to dig up the massive Potter’s Field. Aside from the earlier Chinese disinterments, only about 2,300 graves went elsewhere, Ryder estimates. On top of that, brush fires in 1891 and 1903 destroyed a number of the wooden grave markers, making it easier to forget who was buried there. As soon as the deadline passed, the city ordered that the remaining graves be “leveled over and the tombs destroyed.”
Almost immediately, local golfers began agitating for the city to open a public course, so players didn’t have to belong to a stuffy country club, says Richard Harris, cofounder and president of the San Francisco Public Golf Alliance. In August 1909, just a month after the deadline to remove the graves from City Cemetery, the S.F. Board of Park Commissioners voted to install a golf course atop the graveyard. Golfers had already built a 3-hole course on the site in 1902, which had expanded to 9 holes by 1909 and 18 holes by 1918. The site was renamed Lincoln Park, to denote the fact that it was at the western end of the cross-country Lincoln Highway. The golf course was the first public one in San Francisco and one of the first in the western United States, Harris says.
Harris began playing golf at Lincoln Park decades ago, at the age of 12. Even then, he was well aware that he was golfing in a graveyard. “When you’re playing golf there, you can’t not know that. At the first hole, you walk past the Chinese burial site. You know a cemetery marker when you see it.”
Lincoln Park visitors may have always recognized these graveyard monuments, but it’s not clear they knew how many thousands of graves remained in the ground. The dead started to make themselves known again in February 1921, as crews broke ground on the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, as it was originally called. The museum, funded by Alma de Bretteville Spreckels and her husband, Adolph, who made his money through sugar plantations and breeding racehorses, was built as a memorial to California soldiers killed in World War I. As workers dug into the earth, they tore open 1,500 graves.
“The site of the $250,000 memorial to the dead was once a cemetery. It still is, but the bones are now scattered. In the excavation work for the memorial workmen have uncovered about 1500 skeleton-filled coffins,” reporter Vid Larsen wrote for the Daily News in 1921. Larsen and a colleague visited the site during construction and reported “piles of bones not completely covered by the dirt,” many coffins cut in half by the teeth of excavating machines, and more coffins poking out from the soil. Local college students bought some of the skulls. The foreman told the reporters that his crews refused to touch the bones. “The only thing we can do,” he said, “is to scrape them over and cover them up again.”
The Legion of Honor opened on Armistice Day, November 11, 1924, atop thousands of graves. The burials remained relatively undisturbed until 1993, when a new round of excavations at the museum uncovered what archaeologist Miley Holman described as a “charnel heap,” a mass grave likely left over from the 1921 construction. The remains, archaeologists found, belonged mostly to elderly white people buried in redwood coffins. Their bones showed signs of age and heavy labor: fractures, skeletal trauma, arthritis.
Museum officials and builders didn’t want to deal with the work of processing the remains; Harry Parker, the director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, complained to the San Francisco Chronicle that the delays associated with the discovery would cost $50,000 a month. Ultimately, the Legion of Honor turned the remains of about 900 early San Franciscans over to the medical examiner’s office, and they were reinterred in Skylawn Memorial Park in Colma. The rest, however, are still there. Of the remaining graves, a spokesperson for the Legion of Honor says, “We are monitoring the city process and will determine how the designation of Lincoln Park will impact the museum operations as we learn more.”
City Cemetery’s history speaks to San Francisco’s profound disrespect for the dead, LaBounty says, adding, “It points toward how we treat different socioeconomic levels. That’s the reason it was so easily transformed into a park, and there wasn’t more outcry about not disinterring the dead. It mostly consisted of groups outside the power structure.”
Now that S.F. leaders may make City Cemetery a local landmark, some of those groups are beginning to reclaim it.
The Kong Chow funerary monument, once a central part of a Chinese plot where perhaps 3,700 graves remain in the earth, is one of two former Golden Gate Cemetery markers on the Lincoln Park Golf Course.
In October 2021, dozens of Chinese American San Franciscans gathered at City Cemetery’s Kong Chow monument for Chung Yeung, an autumn festival that often includes paying homage to the dead. Golfers’ games were paused as locals brought in alcohol and food, including a whole roast pig, as well as paper money and incense to burn as offerings, says Supervisor Chan. “Many of our Chinese elders were there, and some got teary-eyed. It was a moment to think about their parents, and grandparents, and great-grandparents.” It was the first such ceremony in decades, possibly since the 1907 memorial for Hew Kong, president of the Yung Wo Association, who died suddenly on November 27, 1901, after a fight with the Chinese consul, Sun Sze Yee.
As soon as Chan proposed making City Cemetery a landmark, in April 2021, golfers began to worry. The course’s lawns and tees had grown shabby, and the clubhouse was in poor shape, Harris says. Many were concerned that landmarking the cemetery would make it more difficult, or perhaps impossible, for the city to keep the golf course in playable condition. Chan says there’s no reason that making the cemetery a landmark should interfere with maintaining the golf course: “We’re all trying to find ways to share the space and be inclusive and respectful to each other.”
In a letter on behalf of the public golf association, Harris urged the city to consider landmarking the whole, multilayered history of the site, including the golf course, the Legion of Honor, and the Holocaust Memorial near the museum, designed by artist George Segal and installed in 1984.
But only City Cemetery is being considered for landmark status under Article 10 of San Francisco’s planning code, says Allison Vanderslice, principal environmental planner for the city. The site “is significant for its ability to add to our understanding of history and also its cultural associations and its funerary structures.” It captures the cultural diversity of early San Francisco, too, she says.
If the S.F. Board of Supervisors approves landmark status for City Cemetery, the designation will not entail new signage for the site. But, separately, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission plans to install an informational panel that briefly discusses the history of City Cemetery and the remains found along El Camino Del Mar, says Kari Hervey-Lentz, an archaeologist in the city’s planning department. Hervey-Lentz and Ryder are reluctant to reveal specific places where remains could be found; they don’t want to make it easy for relic hunters to dig up bones or other grave goods. It’s rare, but it happens: in the 1960s, local kids digging for fun in the park near Clement Street and 39th Avenue unearthed a Jewish headstone that dates back to 1858. It may have been moved from an earlier Jewish cemetery at Gough and Green Streets, Ryder says.
The poet Kenneth Rexroth once argued that there is “nothing underground about” San Francisco. On the contrary, it is a city with history as layered and rich as the Franciscan Complex stone that underlies it. The original home of the Ohlone people is famed for the Spanish colonizers, the gold rush, the Beats and the Summer of Love, queer and trans rights movements, and the tech boom. It’s also famed for having no cemeteries within city limits, even though it still has a few: the historic graveyard at Mission Dolores de Asís, the National Cemetery in the Presidio, the Columbarium with its thousands of niches for cremated remains. And City Cemetery; most of its dead are still there too.
And yet, because San Francisco outsourced its burials in the 20th century, it’s a city where local victims of the 1906 earthquake and fire (3,000), the AIDS crisis (20,000), the Jonestown massacre (909), and the COVID-19 pandemic (946 and counting) couldn’t be buried in the place they called home. In San Francisco, do the dead matter? Time and time again, through a combination of poor planning, lack of foresight, and human greed, city officials have demonstrated that the dead don’t matter.
Landmarking City Cemetery may begin to change that. Since the Chung Yeung ceremony last October, there are already signs of it happening, particularly at the Kong Chow monument. Someone has been keeping fresh flowers, incense, and a broom at the site to pay respect to the dead buried there, says Hervey-Lentz. “It’s rewarding to see this work contributing to the heritage of these groups” and the importance of this site recognized.
Chan hopes that local Chinese American elders and community organizations will return to the monument each year to celebrate Chung Yeung and similar ceremonies. And she hopes that landmarking the cemetery will create more respect for San Francisco’s historic dead overall. “Not just for [residents] who are here now but for generations to come and for immigrants.… It will remind people that San Francisco has always been a city of immigrants, a refuge for people who want to come here and thrive here.”•