- Storyland in the San Francisco Zoo
Remembering the 1950s nursery-rhyme-inspired Storyland at the San Francisco Zoo. - by Woody LaBounty
- Birth of Westwood Park, Part 1
The creation of San Francisco's first residence park for the middle class. - by Woody LaBounty
- Surf Theatre Memories
The Surf Theatre brought a wave of art films to San Francisco's Sunset District. - by Woody LaBounty
- The Frozen Sea: 1536 La Playa's Hidden Past
Elaborate decorative reliefs from a roadhouse past are discovered in a plain apartment building. - by Woody LaBounty
- Golden Gate Park's Gjoa
A historic sloop that came through the Northwest Passage before going on display in Golden Gate Park. - by Woody LaBounty
- St. Emydius Catholic Church
San Francisco's Ingleside parish birthed by the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. - by Woody LaBounty
- Sutro Baths Segregation
An 1890s bid for civil rights at Sutro Baths - by Woody LaBounty
- The Original Balboa Theater, the Westwood
Ocean Avenue's first movie theater wasn't the El Rey. - by Woody LaBounty
The tale of a storied roadhouse at San Francisco's Ocean Beach - by Woody LaBounty
- Farms? In San Francisco?
Agricultural enterprises in western San Francisco in 1903. - by Woody LaBounty
by Woody LaBounty
In January of 1899, my great-great grandmother ended her life by hanging herself in a closet. The family's grief was terribly compounded by an anonymous letter sent to the police and coroner accusing her husband of poisoning her and faking the suicide.
All of the major San Francisco newspapers followed the story, publishing etchings of my ancestor and copies of the letter. My great-great grandfather, John Emil Slinkey was dragged through an inquest, and the body of his wife, Christine Dern Slinkey, was exhumed from Laurel Hill Cemetery and examined for signs of foul play.
No poison was found by the coroner, John Slinkey was exonerated, and poor Christine was returned to her eternal resting place.
That is, until her son Milton moved her again, twenty years later, to keep ahead of the will of the Board of Supervisors and the voters of San Francisco, as thousands of graves were hauled out of city limits.
Land of the Dead
At the turn of the 20th century most of San Francisco's dead were interred to the northwestern side of the city. Golden Gate Cemetery loomed over the mouth of the bay (where the Palace of the Legion of Honor now sits majestically) and the Marines Hospital cemetery sat just inside the Presidio. The major burial ground, however, surrounded the intersection of Geary Street and Masonic Avenue, where the "Big Four" did business.
Masonic Avenue owes its name to the Masonic cemetery that lay on the current site of the University of San Francisco's main campus.
The Catholics sent their departed to the consecrated ground of Calvary Cemetery, where the Anza Vista district and Kaiser Hospital are today.
Rossi Playground, the Coronet theater, and the Franciscan Heights neighborhood all used to be part of another "final" resting place. Only the Columbarium, which still peeks over at the traffic on Geary Boulevard and Stanyan Street, remains of the Odd Fellows Cemetery.
Laurel Hill Cemetery, which was originally called Lone Mountain Cemetery, occupied the Laurel Heights development and shopping center, with the paramount spot taken by the old Firemen's Fund (now UCSF-owned) building.
Since the 1880s there had been cries to "Remove the Cemeteries," primarily to make room for development, although this aim was often couched in rhetoric about "ghouls" and health hazards. Politics and public opinion prevented any further land to be earmarked for the dead, so on August 1, 1901, with most of the existing graveyards nearly filled up, the Board of Supervisors prohibited further burials within city limits.
The revenue for burial charges and lot sales now disappeared for the cemeteries in place. Only perpetual-care lots had the funds to be maintained. Quickly, the Big Four's land of the dead, which was also the gateway to the growing Richmond district, began to deteriorate.
Neighborhood groups and local papers like the Richmond Banner lobbied for years to have the graves removed. Justifications ranged from concerns over homeless encampments and crime, to the impediment of business growth, with a frequent complaint being the inconvenience of having streets from downtown (such as Bush and Post) dead-end at Laurel Hill.
After numerous legal battles, and various proposals for the cemeteries to transition into parks, public housing, and even the new Lowell High School, the cemeteries eventually lost out to public pressure and the voters of San Francisco. The Masonic and Odd Fellows associations went first, taking their bodies down to Colma (then called "Lawndale"). Influenced by the opportunity to use the former Masonic burial grounds as a university site (USF), the Catholic Archdiocese gave up in 1937 and transferred Calvary's occupants south to Holy Cross Cemetery.
The biggest battle came over the elimination of Laurel Hill. Pioneers, renowned local heroes, and families of great wealth lay under the scrub and lawns of the 80-year-old cemetery. Were the bodies (and impressive monuments) of Senator David Broderick, Civil War hero Colonel E.D. Baker, Andrew Hallidie (inventor of the cable car), and Thomas Larkin to be dragged unceremoniously out of the town they helped shape? Eventually, it became so.
Over 35,000 bodies were removed from Laurel Hill in a year and a half. The cemetery attempted to contact heirs, relatives and plot owners so they could make private removals and reinternments, if they wished. Of course, this effort wasn't always successful, and unclaimed headstones and monuments were carted away by the County Department of Public Works. Stone memorials to thousands of San Francisco dead helped build sea walls at Aquatic Park and Ocean Beach. Pioneers that helped build San Francisco when alive, had their gravestones used to create rain gutters in Buena Vista Park.
World War II slowed down development plans, but in the years following, the commercial and residential districts moved in. The Richmond district business owners didn't get their dead-end streets eliminated, but settled for a short jog connecting Bush Street with Masonic.
A New Home
The records say my peripatetic great-great grandmother now lies with other relatives in a common plot in Cypress Lawn in Colma. There's no marker now; perhaps it's holding up part of the Marina. I hope she made her last move all right.
I still shake my head in amazement that they moved the dead out of town. They actually dug everyone up, pauper and society matron, so they could build more homes and a few businesses.
As a kid I watched movies at the Coronet Theater, took swimming lessons at Rossi Pool, played baseball at Laurel Hill Playground, got fitted for school shoes when the Sears department store was on the top of the hill. USF students are right now making copies at Kinko's on Stanyan Street. Patients are watching television in their rooms at Kaiser Hospital. Homeowners are pruning hedges in Anza Vista.
All closer to the grave than they know.
Bibliography: Location, Regulation, and Removal of Cemeteries in the City and County of San Francisco, William A. Proctor; Richmond Banner, April 4, 1924; Necropolis North of the Panhandle, Greg Gaar, Haight Ashbury Newspaper, 1982.
Contribute your own stories about western neighborhoods places!
Page launched 6 July 2001; updated 26 June 2012