There’s been a lot of buzz around town since the MissionMission blog posted photos they received from a beachcomber of a recently exposed headstone on Ocean Beach near Rivera Street. (http://www.missionmission.org/2012/06/04/122-year-old-gravestone-washes-up-on-ocean-beach/) Readers there used the power of the Internet to research the life (and a bit of the genealogy) of Delia Presby Oliver who died in our City in April 1890.
There’s been a lot of speculation about how Delia’s headstone got from Laurel Hill Cemetery, where she was laid to rest, to Ocean Beach, where she became famous. Here’s the short answer: the headstone was dumped there by the San Francisco Department of Public Works in the 1940′s.
here’s the longer answer:
In 1901, San Francisco’s Cemeteries were barred from burying any more people within the city limits ( cremated remains are still allowed and welcomed at The Columbarium). This essentially doomed San Francisco’s Cemeteries, without adding “residents’ the cemeteries lacked the finances (and the incentive) for upkeep and over the next 30 years, fell into disrepair.
(footage of Laurel Hill Cemetery near the end, courtesy of Rick Prelinger) They were seen as dangerous eyesores and nuisances, impeding the progress of the burgeoning growth of the Richmond District.
By the late 1930′s, popular opinion had swayed in favor of the removal of the cemeteries. The Masonic and Odd Fellows Cemeteries were the first to go, with removals going to Colma’s Woodlawn and Greenlawn cemeteries, respectively. The Catholic Calvary Cemetery was closed in 1937 and moved to Woodlawn. Laurel Hill was the last to go, the dead being moved to Cypress lawn in 1939 and 40. Many of the Laurel Hill monuments remain on the site up until at least 1946. Descendents of the dead were contacted for removal of their loved ones, but these efforts were not always successful. When there was no one to contact, the dead were moved to mass graves at the new locations. ( Some of which are now faced with their own encroaching development : http://www.flickr.com/photos/anythreewords/4370777884/) .
So, how did this particular headstone get to Ocean Beach?
The story is revealed in the April 4th 1944 edition of the San Francisco News, a daily newspaper of the time: the headline reads “Cemetery Stones Save Beach”.
“An 800 foot washout along the beach opposite Rivera St which has kept the West drive of the Great Highway closed for a month has been filled in and the drive will be reopened by the end of this week, Asst City Engineer S. P. Duckel said today” …
“Because of the war it is impossible to get the interlocking sheet lagging mae of steel which, when coated with concrete, makes an ideal sea wall for protecting weak sections of the beach. … the city engineering department was hard pressed to find material for immediate use. However a call to Laurel Hill Cemetery brought assurance that the city was welcometo remove some old headstones, pieces of mausoleums and brick and stone piers left when the cemetery was moved several years ago.”
“‘It will be some time before we can restore that stretch to the way it used to be’… In the meantime youngsters are having a fine time, practically standing on their heads in some instances, in attempts to read the names and inscriptions on the old gravestones.”
So, now the question isn’t how or when did Delia Presby’s headstone get to Ocean Beach, but what happened to all the others?
More Cemetery Links
Streetwise: Dearly Departed – http://www.outsidelands.org/sw10.php
SF West History Minute – Tombstone Search – http://outsidelands.org/historyminute/1264725774/TombstoneSearch
1938 Aerial San Francisco Photographs from the SFPL and David Rumsey Collection