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(Originally published in the San Francisco Call on March 29, 1896)

The Secluded Cemetery for Sailors Among the Presidio Hills.

In This Strange Company Are Gathered Men of Almost Every Nation on Earth.

If you are fond of long walks in the suburbs of San Francisco, and you happen to wander over the United States military reservation, your steps may lead to a lonely spot out near the Golden Gate, where, in a valley dreary with stunted growths and hummocks of half-tamed sand dunes, long rows of white posts bearing names and dates, and strangely suggestive of plantation nurseries, intrude upon the landscape. There are fences round these rows of painted boards, and then, as you draw near, there are mounds side by side, all of an equal length, and all sandy, save where nature has spread the golden eschscholtzia, and the blue nemophila amid the tufts of weeds.

The garniture of the wilderness is in perfect harmony with this desert spot, for the place is very wild indeed, secluded from worldly sight by kindly hills and groves, and unknown only to an occasional pedestrian who leaves the beaten path for the Presidio hills. With all its wildness the mounds and the white boards within its rugged borders contain many a romantic story. The story, however, in each instance is a buried romance of the sea. Every little hill marks the grave of a sailor--the resting-place of Jack, where there are no storms--for the acre of mounds in the sailors' cemetery in San Francisco.

Strange as it may appear, this burial ground has at least 200 hardy fellows under its sod, the men who came from all quarters of the globe to the port of San Francisco and never sailed away again through the Golden Gate. They are the sailors who came up from the sea in ships. It was their lot to brave the ocean through many a tempestuous mood and at last go aloft like any ordinary land-lubber, and after all their watches and wanderings to have only a place among the dreary, sand hills, with bits of white-painted boards at their heads.

Marine Hospital Cemetery in the Presidio - San Francisco Call, March 29, 1896

How they came to meet this fate is another story that has various interesting points, for around Jack in his troubles and his last struggle the men beside him say there is ever something of the romantic side of life. It may be fate, as the sailor himself would call this characteristic feature, but anyhow it is present. When Jack comes into port from another part of the world and feels the hand of sickness pressing heavily upon him, he forsakes his bunk for a bed provided by Uncle Sam for him in the Marine Hospital. It matters not what his nationality may be, so long as he is a sailor he belongs to the Republic of the High Seas and the great leveler in life-- the sea--is his guarantee of solicitude. And so out in the government institution in Richmond there are constantly 100 sailors gathered from all lands and suffering the common ills of humanity. Too often the journey to the hospital proves to be Jack's last voyage on earth, for every month the roll call falls short in the local institution by four or five names. A short walk over the hill and those same -names may be read upon the white boards, where flowers have not yet begun to bloom upon the sand freshly turned. The rows of whitened boards have simply stretched out a trifle longer in the month, and the extension represents the names that were dropped. For this almost unheard of cemetery within the City's limits is the burial ground of the United States Marine Hospital.

And what visitor to the spot can say that Jack has not a tender heart? Here are sermons in simplest form. Even amid the unlovely headboards and weeds one may learn a homely lesson from the work of some rough sailors, who are now God knows where. The touches of tenderness left upon the sandy mounds appeals to one with a pathetic earnestness, though, after all, they be nothing more than wooden monuments and frames, or fences, for an occasional grave, a tiny marble slab or a cluster of flowering plants.

"About the last thing the crews of ships have done in San Francisco before sailing," said an officer of the hospital, pointing toward the few monuments, "was to come out here and decorate the graves of their dead comrades."

"The crew of an English ship lost a comrade, who was buried here. They contributed enough out of their wages to buy a fence and head monument, and the day before their ship sailed for home they were out here at the grave. Then they had a photograph taken of the monument to show in England that they had done everything in their power for their shipmate.

"Some of the other fences and flowers were placed there by friends of the sailors. Those people knew the men buried here and they came and put up monuments and sowed flowers upon the graves. They were all seamen, and as far as I knew had nothing in common more than a warm heart for one another."

These dead sailors form a strange company as they lie side by side. They sailed to San Francisco in ships from every land under the sun, except Turkey. As an illustration of the extraordinary diversity of nationality, it was stated that the sailors, who died and were buried there since last August, were natives of the following countries, arranged according to the chronological order of burials: Denmark, Ireland, Austria, New Mexico, Germany, Australia, Chile, Finland, New York, Greece, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, France, Finland, Jamaica, Wisconsin, Germany, Texas, Sweden, Peru, Illinois, Hawaii, Germany, Norway, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Cape de Verde Islands, England, Prussia, Alaska, Spain, Italy, Scotland , Portugal. South America, China, Hindustan, West Indies and Africa have also contributed their quota to the cemetery. The proportion of Americans is remarkably small, which fact is accounted for by the American preference for a life on land, and also by the better treatment as a rule accorded sailors on American ships. In this connection the question no doubt arises, "What is it that carries off so many able men?"

There is a belief that sailors succumb to acquired diseases, accidents on board ship and sickness brought on by exposure. The United States Marine Hospital Service report for 1894 shows that fifty-six men of the sea died that year. These cases are divided into general diseases, 25; local, 29; injuries, 2. Consumption ended the days of seventeen of this number and only one man succumbed to scurvy.

The other diseases that proved fatal were of the nervous, circulatory, respiratory and digestive systems. This is news to many landsmen, who imagined that Jack was usually drowned or died according to some queer belief about sailors. The strangest of it all may be this--that as a rule, Jack finds his last resting place ashore, and that the number who go to Davy Jones are infinitely in the minority.

When the summons comes for Jack to go aloft he is dressed in his own clothes, that is, the apparel he wore on entering the institution. Then they place him, this rough sailor, with his dress of the sea, which perhaps still savors of the salt air and the unctuous pitch, into a plain, stout redwood coffin. There is not much ado over his interment. He is put under the sand with a board at his head, and, at least --he is with his mates.

Source: San Francisco Call March 29, 1896/ Alice Phelan Sullivan Library at the Society of California Pioneers, San Francisco

Page launched 10 July 2001

  • Marine Hospital Cemetery

    Located behind the Public Health Hospital, Presidio of San Francisco, near 15th Avenue and Lake Streets. ( Feb 27, 2005)
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