San Francisco has been home to countless fascinating stories since it was first founded in 1776, when Spain established a military fort on Ohlone land at the Presidio. One of the spookiest tales is that of the Gold Rush-era graves that once filled San Francisco’s cemeteries.
As SF’s cemeteries began to fill to capacity in the early 1900s, the city looked at relocating the bodies so as to free up real estate. It became illegal to bury bodies in the city in 1902, even before the 1906 earthquake that killed thousands. From 1914 through the 1940s, San Francisco removed almost all 26 cemeteries in the city except for the SF National Cemetery and Mission Dolores Cemetery. The city relocated most headstones and bodies to mass graves in Colma, but their accompanying remains didn’t always make the journey with them.
Many of the early graves belonged to lonely miners and immigrants who had no one to claim them. Unclaimed headstones were repurposed for various parts of city infrastructure, including Buena Vista Park, landfills, sea walls, and even the Wave Organ in the harbor. Read on to see where you can find these Gold Rush-era relics!
In the Marina district of SF, you’ll find a unique outdoor sculpture that’s more than just a cool-looking art installation. The Wave Organ, created by artists Peter Richards and George Gonzalez in 1986, is an acoustic sculpture activated by the waves of the San Francisco Bay. Its haunting music comes from 25 different organ pipes placed at different levels around the sculpture, changing with the rise and fall of the tides. The sculpture was created with headstones and carved granite and marble from the old cemeteries. Learn more about the Wave Organ here.
Aquatic Park and Marina breakwaters
The city constructed Aquatic Park as a swimming zone in the 1930s. Unclaimed tombstones were used to construct the breakwater that lines this manmade cove, in order to protect swimmers from the waves. They were also used for the same purpose in the Marina District. If you go at low tide, you can see some of the tombstones lining the walls.
Buena Vista Park
Did you know that Buena Vista Park was the first park in San Francisco? It was first established as “Hill Park” in 1867. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this park is the fact that its trails and drainage system are lined with old headstones. You can find them lining the pathways about 2/3 of the way up to the top.
…but what about all of those relocated bodies?
Colma is a small town in San Mateo that was initially founded as a necropolis in 1924. It’s home to 17 different cemeteries, plus the Laurel Hill Mound, which is a mass grave containing about 38,000 people with no markers. The city estimates the population of the dead to be 1.5 million, meaning that they outnumber the living by about 1,000 to 1. Famous graves include those of William Randolph Hearst, Levi Strauss, and Emperor Norton. The city’s motto is terribly appropriate: “It’s Great To Be Alive In Colma!”