Ye Olde Cemeteries of SF, Part II: City/Golden Gate

February 15, 2021

Did you think the story was over for the poor souls moved out of their resting place in Yerba Buena Cemetery? HAHAHAHA IT WAS NOT. Because guess which other cemetery was moved/not moved/built over? City! Or Golden Gate, as it was later called. This is Poltergeist Town, not Respectful Burial Practices Town.

The Old Cemetery

City Cemetery opened in 1868, at roughly 33rd Avenue and Clement out to the ocean. At that time, the area was the Wild West of San Francisco - I’m sure city leaders expected it to be remote for a long time. With the hindsight of history, however, we know that boomtown San Francisco would never be contained. Our lust for land and space to build continues to this day. 

Cemetery Map. Image source:
Cemetery Map Key. Image source:

City started out as a municipal burial ground, which meant it was not affiliated with a church or organization. Anyone could be buried there, and part of its grounds were designated as a Potter’s Field, or indigent burial site. City is the Mythical American Melting Pot Cemetery - it’s where everyone who couldn’t get a space in one of the Big Four was buried. There are Italian, French, Jewish, German, Slav, Orthodox Greek, African American, Japanese, and Chinese folks buried there. In 1887, the cemetery housed 11,771 and almost half (6454) were indigent. At last count in 1893, there were 18,000 people interred there, 11,000 of whom were indigent. The first burials at City came from Yerba Buena Cemetery, which was moved in 1860.

It doesn’t seem to have been well maintained. Newspaper accounts from the time describe it as “neglected and forlorn.” Dan Fillion’s excellent site contains a passage from the Examiner in 1891 describing rows of sunken graves with rotting wooden headboards. Trash was everywhere, there were no trees, no greenery. Despite its spectacular location overlooking the Golden Gate, it was bleak and dreary and PRETTY FUCKING GRIM. 

Much like its predecessor Yerba Buena, City Cemetery was not long for this town. In the 1890’s, only about twenty years after it first opened, officials moved to close the cemetery and take the land. In 1887, the Committee responsible for City Cemetery recommended that interments stop. In the 1890’s, efforts were underway to condemn the land to create a military battery and a park in its place.  A key voice in favor of removal was the Real Estate Exchange, who saw the value of nearby land rising once the unsightly graveyard was gone. In 1908, San Francisco began asking the benevolent societies to remove their graves and relocate them, and in 1909 the land was turned into a park. In 1910, the land was converted to a golf course, and in 1921, the Legion of Honor came along. 

Also much like Yerba Buena Cemetery, many of the bodies were NOT ACTUALLY MOVED.  In fact in this case, it seems like most of the bodies are still there. That’s right folks, on the ninth hole at Lincoln Park Golf Course - you’re teeing off on top of the dead. You know what else is right there on the site of City Cemetery? The Legion of Honor, where workers found hundreds of bodies as they built and repaired the building. 

The Legion of Honor 

Have you been to the Legion of Honor? It’s a beautiful, classically designed museum modeled after the eighteenth century French Hotel de Salm.  It sits on a bluff that overlooks the ocean, and is now planted with a beautiful cypress forest. It’s full of sculpture and art and I actually wanted to have my wedding there! Unfortunately we got married in February (I WAS IN LAW SCHOOL OK I NEEDED TO GET IT OVER WITH) and the museum required the ceremony to take place outside - which was not going to happen in the winter. Fog, wind, maybe some rain! Gravedigger weather for sure. I guess drinking champagne and listening to a DJ among the antiquities in a basement chamber dug out of a Gold Rush Era Cemetery is cool but not getting MARRIED in there??

Now 2020-me feels like I missed an excellent branding opportunity. At the time I was more interested in passing Wills and Trusts (trust me when I say BARELY) than partying amongst the neglected dead. But now I see we could have done a whole thing with this. A spiritualist to bless the union? We could have served tiny coffin-shaped cookies instead of cake? ALL V TASTEFUL AND APPROPRIATE and definitely would have made it past the vetting team of my mother and husband. Anyway, hindsight is 2020 lol.

Legion of Honor construction, 1923. Image source: OpenSFHistory / wnp30.0332.jpg

Because as I mentioned, the bodies are STILL THERE. In 1921, workers building the Legion of Honor came across a METRIC FUCKTON OF GRAVES. The Museum, commissioned by sugar baroness Alma Spreckles, was dedicated to the memory of the WWI dead (IRONY!). The Daily News reported that workers uncovered 1,500 bodies in coffins, pulling out as many as four or five bodies an hour as they laid the foundation for the structure. The firsthand accounts are horrifying:  “I visited Lincoln Park. Just as I arrived one large and two small skeletons were ripped out of one grave. . Wrapped about them were shrouds. . . There were plenty of bones not completely covered by the dirt. Along the ledge just where the hill drops abruptly were many coffins-- cut in half by the steel teeth of the excavating machines.” According to this account, “No provision was made for the reburying of the bodies.” When interviewed, the foreman said “The men don’t like them. Won’t touch the bones. The only thing we can do is scrape them over and cover them up again.” 

Sixty nine years later, those remains and more were found when the Legion of Honor started work to retrofit the museum. They expected to encounter “some” human remains, not a fully intact cemetery of almost 800 bodies AKA ANOTHER FUCKTON. This time, however, news crews, photographers, and archaeologists were on hand to document the findings and we know a lot more about it. Under the central courtyard, workers found part of a mass grave, which archaeologist Miley Holman called a “charnel heap.” That heap may have been left over from the casual way the 1921 crew desecrated the graves and shoved them off to the side in piles. Holman told the Chronicle that he could tell by “changes in the color of the sand that in the 1900s ‘somebody with a steam shovel’ dug up the bodies that lay at the site.” In another interview, he confirms that the museum’s builders “did a sloppy job.” All of this tracks with the 1921 accounts. 

As workers found more and more bodies, construction slowed down, and archeologists scrambled to collect as much information as they could while the graves were open. The remains were mostly elderly white folks in “simple redwood coffins.” Their remains “show fractures, skeletal trauma, arthritis and other ailments reflecting the hard life of working-class San Franciscans of the time.” These were the indigent dead of Victorian San Francisco. Photographer Richard Barnes was hired to document the excavation, and his images captured the haunting juxtaposition of the subterranean finds against the classical architecture of the Legion of Honor. Archeologists also unearthed artifacts like guns, combs, coins and buttons, which they catalogued and studied. 

Not everyone was thrilled to discover an entire damn cemetery under the construction site. Museum Director Harry Parker told the Chronicle that the delays would cost $50,000 a month:  money that was a mix of donated and public funds. He is quoted as saying that the finds are “interesting but not exactly King Tut’s tomb.” As in 1921, museum officials and builders didn't really want to deal with this. In 1993, however, with the press and public watching, the Legion turned the remains over to the Medical Examiner’s Office, and reburied them at Skylawn Memorial Park in San Mateo. 

This is when the public and the press put together the story that the dead at City Cemetery were never moved. Archaeologist Miley Holman told the Chronicle, “We thought they’d come through in 1900 and removed the bodies, but they apparently simply kicked over the headboards.”  The number of graves found just on the plot of the Legion of Honor - in 1921 and 1993 - support this idea. And if none of the bodies were moved from the parcel above the Legion of Honor, how can we expect that any of the bodies under Lincoln Golf Course were moved? We can’t. We have to assume they are still there. Maybe not all twenty thousand, the benevolent societies may have moved their graves, but most of the indigent dead, certainly. 

Remember, a large number of the folks buried at City Cemetery came from Yerba Buena Cemetery. These bodies were moved once, then moved again, then built over, and each time the city promised that the removal was decent and complete. These are already the bodies that no one wants; immigrants, poor people, religious minorities. It gets clearer by the minute that the city still doesn’t fucking want them. To this day, the bodies of the men and women who built this city lie anonymously under a golf course and museum.

Same old, same old 

It’s not hard to see this as a parable for modern San Francisco. These days, it feels like a tale of two cities:  very poor and very rich. The middle class has been fleeing for decades, rent and housing prices are astronomical, and the population of homeless and housing insecure residents grows everyday. We are the most expensive place to live in the US outside of Manhattan. Tent cities line the streets of almost every neighborhood, while we continue to break records for the number of billionaires per capita

Here at the Legion of Honor you can see that in stark relief:  a temple to elite cultural study, funded by industrial barons, towers over and obliterates the lives of the men and women who labored to create this city. Their lives were disposable, their contributions erased. These folks were so poor that their bodies were moved twice, then forgotten. They never even had proper headstones, but the building that displaced them houses “interesting” history from “classical” cultures - preserved in temperature controlled chambers, behind glass. 

Richard Barnes, who captured the dig in black and white photos, wrote “The Palace of the Legion of Honor is a site steeped in memory, and the excavation of the ground beneath is rich in its implications. Here the preserved heritage is an imported European art history that displaces an ambiguous, disregarded social history.”

Special thanks to Alex Ryder and John A. Martini - local historians who have done excellent research on this site.


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