San Francisco History

In The Shadow of Lone Mountain

by Walter J. Thompson

To all old San Franciscans Lone Mountain is more than a mere landmark, which, with its soft curving lines of beauty culminating in a rounded top, is attractive to the eye as a pleasing bump upon the face of nature. Such a landscape it was to the earliest comers who wandered into the Western wilderness from the shack-town by the eastern bay shore and who because of its solitariness gave it the name of Lone Mountain. But that was before they conferred signal honor upon it by making it the warder of a second city which they built close by their bustling burg amid the drifting sands and the gray mists that rolled in from the sobbing ocean not far away. It was a city in which the inhabitants did not babble incessantly of gold and did not jostle each other rudely in their eager, mad striving for it; a city wherein an awesome silence brooded, only broken by the ocean’s sobs—a city of the dead.

As faithful warder of such a community through the years which saw it gradually take into its jurisdiction, one by one, those husky, bustling gold-seekers of ’49 and many others that followed them and incorporate them into the great silence. San Franciscans came to look upon the lonely mount with feelings akin to those which one deems is coming to the dumb servitor of legendary lore who watched over the beloved dead. The incidents leading up to the selection of Lone Mountain for its mission and development form an interesting chapter in the annals of the city. The disposal of the dead was a serious problem in the beginning of the gold rush. As the compiler of the annals of those days says, “Time became money and the deaths were numerous. Few men would then spare as much leisure as sufficed to accompany the corpse of a stranger, nay even of a friend, to the Mission burial ground, or anywhere, in fact.” So it was that the bodies were put anywhere out of sight. In a gold rush or among activities where human passions run wildly and riotously there is nothing so worthless as a dead man. There was no record of deaths kept by the authorities and there were no examinations or inquests. Often a hole was dug in the ground behind or near a tent and the body thrown therein. Some bodies were carried to the top of Russian Hill and buried in the patch of ground that contained the relics of some early-day Russians; others were interred on the slope of Telegraph Hill close to Clark’s Point at Vallejo street, and others found a resting place in Happy Valley or at North Beach.

But in February, 1850, the ayuntamiento set aside a large tract of land out where the massive City Hall, destroyed in the fire of 1906, afterward stood for the purpose of a public burial place which was called Yerba Buena Cemetery. It was not until summertime came and access to it was easy that it began to be used. For a long time, though, the cemetery was but an uninclosed waste and the only funerals held there at which there was any pretense of ceremony were those of the Masons and Odd Fellows, or when a Chinese was tucked away with the burnt punk and tom-tom music of the ceremonial of his race. The cemetery was later fenced in and slabs and monuments accumulated amid the shrubs and scrub oak. I have heard pioneers say that it never appealed to any one as a cemetery any more than did those grewsome spots at Clark’s Point and North Beach. Neglected in their burial and forgotten in their rude graves, the dismal requiem of those dead ones consisted of the nightly croakings of hundreds of frogs in the cemetery pools and the howling of wandering coyotes which only too frequently played the ghoul, as the violation of shallow graves showed.

Within three years and prompted probably by a revival of the proper feeling of respect for the remains of a human being, a movement was started to establish another cemetery, the projectors declaring that Yerba Buena was too near the city. The new site selected was a tract of land 320 acres in extent, lying to the northeast of and including Lone Mountain. Nathaniel Gray and others who were the planners of the scheme lost no time in putting it through, and in November, 1853, it was brought to a consummation. It was not until May, 1854, that the formal dedication took place. By that time, too, a change had been made in the original plans. Owing to some difficulty over land titles—such differences were fashionable then—it was decided that 160 acres of land would be ample for the new cemetery. The left Lone Mountain out the tract, which was inclosed by a handsome fence and called Lone Mountain Cemetery—now Laurel Hill—and so it was thrown open and met with favor. It was described as being a picturesque spot with many beautiful places within the inclosure, with delightful dells scooped out among the hills and evergreen oaks bordering their quiet beauty, with vales smiling with flowers and knolls covered with shrubs. One of the papers at the time in eulogizing the grounds said: “It would seem a pleasure to die, happy in the realization that one was to rest in such a bower of nature’s making.” At the opening nearly twenty miles of serpentine and zig-zag avenues had been laid out and graded. A handsome archway graced the entrance at Bush street, and soon tablets, crosses and highly decorated monuments were installed, with flowerbeds and railings, after the sepulchers of Pere la Chaise. In such manner did Lone Mountain come to be the warder of San Francisco’s dead, and its bailiwick grew until at last the grim old mount was completely surrounded by a sea of white memorial stones marking the last resting places of Western empire builders.

The second encompassing cemetery unit was established in 1860, when the Archbishop Joseph Alemany, in behalf of the Roman Catholic Church, acquired the tract of land necessary for the proposed Calvary Cemetery and included within the holding Lone Mountain itself. The Cemetery was opened with impressive church ceremonies, in which the clergy of the city took part. The records show that the first body interred therein was that of one John Riley. One year after the dedication another ceremony took place near by the first. It was upon the sandy top of the lone mount. The ceremony might be said to be the official crowning of the mountain in its capacity of warder. When it was over the cross of Calvary was pointing heavenward from that height. In 1864 to the south the Masonic order laid out its cemetery at the base of the hill. Occidental Lodge of the order was a conspicuous factor in the establishment of this burial ground. Then within a short period the Odd Fellows chose the southwestern end of the mountain’s base for their grounds, and as Mount Blanc looks down from its Alpine prominence upon a vista of lesser peaks on every hand, so did Lone Mountain stand like a huge monument completely surrounded by the myriad of gleaming white stones raised to the memory of the great and the humble, the rich and the poor, the good and the otherwise of San Francisco’s citizens who had passed from the sunlight of life to the gloom of the grave. The old hill, whether glowering in a mantle of gray mist or with the sunbeams playing upon the arms of its white emblem, was master of ceremonies at every one of the funeral ceremonies held in any one of the cemeteries. From all points in that consecrated ground its cross could be seen against the skyline. Its title soon became the nomenclature of the entire district of the dead. The place of burials was called Lone Mountain. The years rolled on with their full quota of deaths and funerals and through those years the San Franciscan’s reverence for Lone Mountain expanded and raised the mountain out of the mere landmark class.

There is another side to the picture too. The mountain is not linked to the old resident’s heart entirely by a chain of sable nor enshrined in their memories as solely a symbol of gloom, even though it was so identified with those daily recurring occasions of grief and sorrow around the newly dug graves. As time sped on it was no longer called upon to sit in somber lonesomeness like a weeping widow at the bier of her beloved. The blithesome cheeriness, the laughter and the joyous vim of the growing city, began to invade its vicinity and with its whirl and bustle break the awesome silence that had reigned over the sepulchers. Now, in addition to those lines of glistening hacks that wound among the cemetery avenues like processions of mammoth black beetles, their glossy backs shining in the sun in such deep contrast with the white headstones, and in addition to those groups of weeping mourners scattered here and there, the old mountain began to see many another and more cheerful sight which seemed to rub off some of the grimness of its aspect. It even appeared to smile under the new conditions.

It saw a broad roadway cut through the cemetery properties and along it pass on horseback and in handsome equipages the gay and the happy ones of the city upon pleasure bent and paying but little heed to the sleepers beneath the white sepulchers who had once laughed as loudly and whirled as madly along life’s highway. It saw a spreading race track laid [Golden Gate Racetrack] out just beyond the Odd Fellow’s Cemetery and saw the bright colors of fashion and beauty filling the grand stand and heard the cheers of those enthusiastic sports who watched the famous flyers of the turf go dashing around the big oval. It saw home after home, some upon its northern and eastern slope, arise on the sand where the wild lupine, purple and golden, had flourished through the sunny summer days, until the domiciles of the living were more numerous than the abiding places of the dead. It felt upon its yielding carpet of sand the tread of an army of youthful feet as young San Francisco marched over it in frolicsome mood. It gasped with horror, if things inanimate can gasp, when the intruders gathered about the base of its scared emblem and ruthlessly hacked away with jack-knives as they cut dates and initials and other hieroglyphics upon the soft wood. Five times did it see its cross dashed to earth by the fierce elements that played about its brow, and each time did the faithful hands that had first placed it there restore it triumphant and immaculate. All these things did the old mountain see in its span as a landmark and a warder. It really began to look as though there were more living than dead in the world, and that its occupation as a warder, at least, was in danger of being swept away.

The future status of Lone Mountain as a landmark, despite the warm feeling which San Franciscans hold for it, is problematical. Its relation to the dead of the city is as a warder emeritus. It looks down upon its stone constituency as of old, but sees there naught but signs of neglect and decay. The funeral hacks come there no more and it sees no groups of weeping mourners. It is like an island of the dead lapped by the waves of throbbing progress. The closing of the cemeteries was its undoing and their removal, once so nearly accomplished and still a live and tangible possibility, will leave it forlorn indeed. It is still held under the jurisdiction of the church, which owns the cemetery from the western border  line of which it is separated by only a few blocks of land. In that intervening stretch the nucleus of a new invasion of homes has been started. An extensive ballpark has been laid out on leased ground, and the hand of development along new lines is in evidence. But these are minor things to what the immediate future may bring to its view.

To the south the lofty spires of a magnificent house of worship built by the owner of the hill rises within its shadow. Easy access to its ever-open doors is desired from the northern side of the hill. Already has the city promised the pathway desired and with the opening of the new fiscal year next July, when budgets are arranged and city funds are going the rounds of the various departments, the old mountain will behold the extension of Parker avenue, that handsome thoroughfare which has already stretched a block of its paved length, and a row of pretty homes up the slope, across the intervening space where a trail road has been scooped out of the yellow clay formation of the mountain, and its linking with the church corner at Fulton street and the improved stretch to the southward across the Park to the home-bespangled hills beyond.

And very, very soon, although the date is still obscure, it will see another street belt its slope in a transverse direction. This will mark the opening of Turk street from Masonic to Parker avenue with the now almost abandoned Masonic Cemetery as its southern boundary line. These plans the Archiepiscopal owner of the hills is engaged in fostering, and their early accomplishment is a settled matter.

With such accomplishment and with the ultimate effacement of the spreading cemeteries, what will be the fate of Lone Mountain? Cold-blooded pioneers of progress and calculating contractors who haven’t an ounce of sentiment in their composition say that the clay formation of the hill will make it yield readily to manipulation of landscape-making machinery and that it could soon be put into shape to conform with surrounding scenery as may be laid out.

When the day of the passing of Lone Mountain comes and the funeral ceremony is in progress if there are any old San Franciscans left they will uncover and stand with bowed heads as they had stood beside the grave of some departed loved one in the dear old past, and they will undergo a revival of those feelings which stirred their innermost being as the dull thuds of the shovelfuls of earth fell upon the coffin and through a mist of tears they saw the grim old mountain surmounted by its emblem of Christian hope seemingly as firmly fixed in its place as the sun itself in the heavens that throw its golden beams across its sides. Ah, the fallaciousness of human thought, when they had lived to attend the funeral of Lone Mountain!

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 11 February 1918. D8.

Return to San Francisco Genealogy
Public Commons License