Friday, July 22, 2011

San Francisco’s Lost and Unclaimed Dead

This is a story that is not often told about San Francisco even though it caused a heated controversy for years. San Francisco is considered one of the most beautiful cities in America, but its human history is filled with tragedy. 

The city sits on a peninsula overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Golden Gate Strait, and the San Francisco Bay. The town itself is laid out over a grid of 40 majestic hills, reaching heights of nearly 1,000 feet. This landscape is breathtaking, but San Francisco's geography creates a shortage of land.
Colma's first cemetery

In 1849 the California Gold Rush brought hundreds of thousands of people into San Francisco with them came disease leading to a high death rate. 

Twenty-six cemeteries were established, and most were filled quickly. In the late 1880s cemetery owners started looking for other property to bury their dead. The south end of Colma, an area near San Francisco, was chosen because there was easy access by carriage, streetcar, and train to this location.

In the late 1890s, California passed State Penal Code 294 prohibiting burials anywhere except established cemeteries. A mere ten years later, on March 26, 1900, the city of San Francisco passed an ordinance that there were to be no more burials allowed, as the land was too valuable to be wasted on the dead, it should be used for the living. 

Removing Cemetery
After several years of debate on January 14, 1914, eviction notices were sent out to all cemeteries, but one, to remove their bodies and monuments. Colma inherited hundreds of thousands of bodies. 

Most of these remains went into mass graves, as there were no relatives to pay the $10.00 for removal. It took nine and a half years to complete the excavation; people today say that not all the bodies were actually moved for it would have taken the workers much longer than this to complete the task.

Map of San Francisco's Cemeteries
The exact numbers of souls moved or not moved is not known because the records of many who were buried were destroyed in the fires that resulted from the Great Earthquake of April 18, 1906. There are twenty-seven sites around San Francisco today that were once used as cemeteries. Three of these sites, because of the lack of records, are suspected of having bodies that were not removed. 

The first was Golden Gate Park Cemetery. Today it is the Lincoln Park Golf Course. It is estimated that there are still 11,000 bodies, originally from a pauper's field, all indigent, that still remain beneath the Legion of Honor Museum. 

The second was the Russian Hill Cemetery. It was actively used from 1848-1853 it is reported that thirty to forty graves remain at the summits today. 

The third is St. Michael’s Cemetery. Originally located on Nebraska Street in 1867, which today is the southwest corner of San Bruno Avenue and 21st Street. Again, it is suspected not all the bodies were moved because the records on how many people were buried there were lost or not kept.

Today what used to be Fort Mason and the Presidio have a standing warning that if people in the area dig up old graves, they should immediately call 911. The Presidio and Alcatraz are known to be haunted. But with all the lost and unclaimed dead that still remain under San Francisco it is no surprise there are hauntings all around the city. I will discuss just two of these locations—there are many more.

Bell Tower
The San Francisco Arts Institute was built in 1925 on the north slope of Russian Hill upon the grounds that once were a mission cemetery. The institute has always experienced strange nocturnal activities. A night watchman and student, Bill Morehouse, who was living in the bell tower was a witness to this activity. 

One night he heard the street level doors he had locked open and close. He then listened frozen in fear as footsteps slowly ascended three sets of stairs. The door to his room opened and closed, he saw no one enter. Incidents similar to this occurred many times after this, but every time he investigated there was never anyone there and no sign as to the cause.

Over the years a variety of manifestations including eerie flickering lights and power tools mysteriously turning on and off were reported by Haywood King and Wally Hedrick who worked at the institute. 

For a while, it was felt that this activity had finally settled down. But in 1968 the bell tower was renovated. 

A series of near-fatal accidents were blamed on the resident ghosts. Some of the construction workers quit the site because it scared them. In recent years the school has kept the bell tower closed. They state it is unsafe, but many feel that the real reason is that the San Francisco Art Institutes’ ghosts do not want people in their tower.

Yerba Buena Cemetery
Perhaps the most haunted location in San Francisco is City Hall. This building sits on land that used to be Yerba Buena Cemetery--1850 to 1871—the cities largest cemetery. At the time many of San Francisco’s smaller graveyards located in the Telegraph Hill, North Beach, and Russian Hill neighborhoods, were moved to Yerba Buena because there were complaints about how unsightly and unsanitary these smaller graveyards were. When Yerba Buena Cemetery was moved later to Colma, the work was done sloppily.

Along with cold spots being felt, smoke-like apparitions have been seen at City Hall. One tour guide, Rob Spoor, experienced this phenomenon first hand one evening. He had finished taking his group around when he realized he had left his binder of ghost stories behind. He re-entered a room to retrieve it and came face to face with one of these smoky apparitions. 

On another occasion, while Spoor was speaking to several guests, he felt a poke on his back. Thinking it was someone trying to pass he stepped aside only to realize no one was there. Spoor tells stories of people on his ghost tours that walk in skeptics and leave believers. He states the reason there is a lot of activity at City Hall is that the land it sits upon has a history of disturbed spirits.

People who work at City Hall have also had encounters with ghosts. They hear doors and cabinets slamming shut, they have seen lights turning on and off without logical explanation. Several of these employees have seen dark shadows roaming the hallways while they were working alone in the building at night.

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