The fifteen-foot-high cast zinc monument in Lincoln Park marks the burial ground established by the Ladies’ Seaman’s Friend Society in the 1880s. The society cared for indigent merchant mariners, especially those with disabilities, and took it upon themselves to give these sailors proper burials at what was formerly City Cemetery. Heritage photo.
This piece was originally published in the July-September 2021 issue of Heritage News. Find the printed version here. To start receiving a printed copy of the newsletter in the mail, join Heritage as a member.
By Woody LaBounty
Lincoln Park, in the northwest corner of San Francisco’s Richmond District, is not lacking in commemorative plaques, interpretative signage, or memorials. A garden and marker behind the golf clubhouse remembers former city champion John Susko. The California Palace of the Legion of Honor museum is a memorial to the Golden State’s fallen dead from World War I. On its east side are bronze tablets inscribed with the names of famous generals from that conflict who planted commemorative trees there. Nearby, the terminus of the Lincoln Highway is marked both with a 1920s concrete plinth featuring a profile of the president and also a more recent interpretive sign about the first transcontinental highway. The Holocaust Memorial stands a couple of hundred yards to the west, and a bit to the north is a monument to the Japanese ship Kanrin Maru. Benches all along El Camino Real Drive facing the Golden Gate are dedicated with small sponsored memorial plates. The tens of thousands of yearly visitors to Lincoln Park, drawn by the museum, the golfing, or the views, can read inscribed declarations, proclamations, and inspirational prose about a variety of topics and events. But they will find no sign or tablet recording the most remarkable aspect of the park: some 20,000 San Franciscans lie buried beneath the turf.
1882 Coast Survey map showing City Cemetery boundaries with an overlay of association plots identified to date. Courtesy of Alex Ryder.
In the late 1860s, San Francisco sought a new municipal burial ground to replace Yerba Buena Cemetery, which was inconveniently located where a new City Hall was planned for the corner of Market, Larkin, and McAllister Streets. In 1870, City Cemetery, also called Golden Gate Cemetery, was established on a distant, windswept hill miles away from the center of population and reached by a solitary road carved through the sand and scrub of today’s Richmond District. Some of the first burials were probably bodies evicted from Yerba Buena Cemetery.
In addition to having areas reserved for San Francisco’s indigent dead, sections of City Cemetery were leased by fraternal, religious, and ethnic communities for the burial of their members, including an African-American order of the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Italian Mutual Benevolent Society, a chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic (Civil War veterans), Jewish congregations Beth Israel, Schaare Zedek, and Sherith Israel, the German Benevolent Society, the Scandinavian Society, the French Benevolent Society, the Japanese Colony of San Francisco, the Greek Russian Slavonian Benevolent Society, merchant mariner associations, including the Ladies’ Seamen’s Friend Society, and a number of Chinese organizations, including the Hop Wo, Ning Yung, and Kong Chow associations.
Researchers consulting interment lists from municipal reports have estimated at least 20,000 bodies were buried in City Cemetery by the end of 1897, although gaps in the reports point to a considerably higher number.
The City of San Francisco halted interments in City Cemetery beginning on January 1, 1898, and in 1901 banned new burials anywhere within city limits, as large cemeteries created in San Mateo County became the final resting place for the majority of San Franciscans. After passing an ordinance directing any interested parties to disinter and relocate remains from City Cemetery, the Board of Supervisors in 1909 reclassified the land as a city park. Individuals and associations who protested the eviction of their relatives and members were dismissed as hindering progress, an argument reflected in one San Francisco Chronicle editorial headline: “The Dead Must Not Be Permitted to Injure the Living.”
But comparatively few bodies were actually moved in the rush to create Lincoln Park. Most of the associations and organizations could not bear the financial cost of relocating their members. The city itself declined to move the indigent dead it had buried over the years, with one city supervisor saying, “It is no desecration to make drives and beautify the grounds with trees and flowers.” Disinterments were done on a limited and ad hoc basis over a decade while a new golf course was laid.
As a municipal cemetery, City Cemetery lacked elaborate gateways or landscaping. The county provided pauper graves with simple numbered wooden headboards. The dues paid by members of different associations generally didn’t cover expensive marble grave markers. In landscaping Lincoln Park the city mostly removed, razed, or buried any caretaker cottages, windmills, tombstones, curbing, and fencing left behind by the associations. By the 1920s, essentially no above-ground evidence of the cemetery remained, with two notable exceptions. Left in place on the Lincoln Park golf course were most of a structure used by the Kong Chow Benevolent Association and a bronze obelisk honoring the Ladies’ Seaman’s Friend Society. Perhaps it was easier to do so, or there was specific intention that the monuments made picturesque hazards for the golfers.
The far more significant remnant of City Cemetery is below ground, where tens of thousands of individuals still lay, some just a half-foot below the sod. Maintenance and infrastructure work in the park such as road and irrigation repairs often uncover human remains and burial materials. Most notably, the 1994 renovation and expansion of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor unearthed more than 900 burials, with 578 adults and 173 children excavated and reburied in Colma, California.
Kong Chow funerary structure. Heritage photo.
First Archaeological City Landmark
Late in 2020, Heritage rallied support from a coalition of community organizations, some with historic connections to the use of City Cemetery, to advocate for a city landmark designation of Lincoln Park. The diverse group includes the Planning Association for the Richmond, the French-American Comité Officiel and la Société de Bienfaisance Mutuelle, the Chinatown Community Development Center, the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society, the Western Neighborhoods Project, and the Hop Wo Benevolent Association.
In response to the request, city supervisor Connie Chan announced in April 2021 her intention to introduce a landmark initiation. Heritage is now working with the Planning Department and the Recreation and Parks Department to identify the character-defining features for a potential landmark ordinance focused on the land’s use as a cemetery. Twentieth-century elements of the park, such as the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, the golf clubhouse, and the Holocaust Memorial, would not be part of the designation. Surviving tree and vegetation boundary lines may be included, while the two monuments and the thousands of early San Franciscans still beneath ground will certainly be called out. Researchers recognize the site as one of the largest collections of 19th-century skeletal remains from the Western United States, and a designation of Lincoln Park would represent the city’s first archeological landmark.
An inscribed piece of broken curbing from the Ladies’ Seaman’s monument is a remnant of City Cemetery. Heritage photo.
In a practical sense, landmark designation will not change much in the operation and use of Lincoln Park. The procedures the city follows in the discovery, handling, and respectful reinterment of human remains will not alter beyond a possible formalization of notification and consultation with descendant communities. Museum operations, golfing, and routine maintenance of the park, playground, roadways, and golf course should go on without any additional regulatory hurdles for city agencies or the organizations that use the park.
For more than a century the city turned away from the story of City Cemetery. A burial ground used primarily for immigrant communities and the poor, its existence was pointedly downplayed during the creation of Lincoln Park and publicly ignored in the decades since. A city landmark designation would represent an important first step by San Francisco to recognize a chapter of its history and honor thousands of pioneers still with us under winding cart paths and green fairways.
Thanks to researchers Kari Lentz, John Martini, and Alex Ryder for their assistance.