Cemetery of the Week #133: Mare Island Cemetery

Looking from the top of the cemetery toward the Powder Magazine

Looking from the top of the cemetery toward the Powder Magazine

Mare Island Cemetery
also known as The Mare Island Naval Cemetery
Blake Avenue
Mare Island, Vallejo, California 94590
Telephone: (707) 557-1538
First recorded burial: 1856
Years of Usage: Circa 1856-1921, although some burials continued after the cemetery was officially closed.
Size: 2.43 acres
Number of interments
: Approximately 1000
: The cemetery is beyond a locked gate and access is limited. The Mare Island Historic Park Foundation holds the key. Contact the Mare Island Museum at Railroad & 8th Streets.
Tours:  The Mare Island Historic Park Foundation offers group tours by reservation. The two-hour tour includes the shipyard, the dry docks, the Commander’s Mansion, the huge 1855 Museum, the cemetery, and the West’s largest collection of Tiffany windows, inside the 1901 St. Peter’s Chapel. Suggested donation is $14 per person. Reservations: (707) 644-4746

A boat carrying horses for the Mexican military in the Bay Area foundered around this peninsula thrust out into the northern reaches of the bay in 1830. General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, commander of the Mexican calvary, believed his favorite mare was lost. Instead, she was eventually located here. General Vallejo named Mare Island, though not a true island, in her honor.

After the American takeover of San Francisco in 1846, the United States wanted to extend its power in the Pacific. In 1854, Mare Island was chosen to become the first naval base on the West Coast. As soon as 1859, it churned out its first warship. The first West Coast dry dock to repair ships already in the water was completed there in 1872. By that time, the granite-lined dry dock was already too shallow for the boats being built.

In World War I, Mare Island set a record when the destroyer USS Ward was built in seventeen and a half days. During the second World War, Mare Island built 17 submarines, 31 destroyer escorts, and more than 300 landing craft. Its final vehicle was the USS Drum, a nuclear-powered attack submarine in 1970.

Shipboard medicine being what it was, many sailors arrived at Mare Island ill or injured. In the early days, these men were simply transferred to ships heading back to hospitals in the East, with hopes they’d still be alive when they arrived.  (Soon-to-be Admiral) David Glasgow Farragut, the commander in charge of establishing the base, successfully petitioned for a Naval hospital on the island — and the surviving building is huge, attesting to the need it served.

Even before the hospital was completed, the Navy saw the need for a graveyard. The West Coast’s oldest Naval cemetery was established on the tree-lined hillside at the south end of Mare Island.  It serves as the final resting place for sailors, soldiers, and their loved ones. The first recorded burial was George Dowd, who died aboard the USS Massachusetts on February 11, 1856. He was buried by the Reverend Mr. Hunt from San Francisco the following day.

Most of the graves have markers, but not all. Cemetery records aren’t comprehensive, but the Public Works Department made a list of graves in 1918, which was updated in 1956. When the Naval hospital closed in 1957, a list of graves by section was given to the Shipyard Historian. The cemetery doesn’t have any big names buried in it, but it does hold some interesting stories:

Anna Scott Key Turner's monument

Anna Scott Key Turner’s monument

Anna Arnold Key Turner — daughter of Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner “— is buried there in a grave whose monument says, “The children arise and call her blessed.” She had eleven children with her husband David. She served as one of Vallejo’s first public school teachers and died in 1884. David preceded her in death in 1860 and is buried beside her. He was a Congressional representative from North Carolina, where his father was governor, when he met Anna. He accompanied Farragut to Mare Island in 1854 and worked as the supervising civil engineer. Some of the buildings he built still stand.

Lucy Lawson's headstone

Lucy Lawson’s headstone

Accused murderess Lucy Lawson was convicted of paying a man $50 to murder her husband in 1875. She was sentenced to hang. When the first of her co-conspirators was hung, the rope broke. The executioner was successful on his second attempt, but by then, evidence arose that one of the witnesses who’d testified against Lucy was a disgruntled ex-lover. She eventually was pardoned. She took a job as a nanny for the family of Commodore Stacy Potts. When the family moved to Mare Island, she came along and was buried there in 1919 after serving for 35 years.

The cemetery has three confirmed Medal of Honor recipients. The most heroic of them is William Halford, who rescued the side-wheel steamer USS Saginaw in 1870. After surveying the lagoon at Midway Island, the Saginaw detoured to Ocean Island to see if anyone had been shipwrecked there. In a twist of fate, the Saginaw his a reef and sank. Halford and four other men took a small boat to seek help. After 25 days at sea, they reached the island of Kauai. Only Halford made it safely to land. He found a boat to take him to Honolulu, where he directed rescuers to the shipwrecked Saginaw.

There may also be a bear buried in the upper lefthand corner of the cemetery. He had served as a ship’s mascot. Local newspapers reported his funeral, but it’s unclear if he was interred inside or outside the cemetery fence.

In addition to Japanese, Chinese, Irish, and other nationalities represented in the graveyard, two Russians sailors serving on the Lena died while their ship was at Mare Island undergoing repairs during the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905.

The new Russian gravestones

The new Russian gravestones

Toward the front of the cemetery lie six other Russian sailors, who died during the Civil War era. They’d served on the Bogatyr, flagship of Admiral A.A. Popov’s Pacific Squadron, which visited the Bay Area at the invitation of President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Lincoln was seeking international support to counter the French and British fleets gathering behind the Confederacy. While the Russians were in San Francisco, fire broke out in the Financial District. The six Russian sailors died fighting the blaze.

The original markers, paid for by their shipmates, were probably wooden crosses. The US Navy purchased more permanent markers for them in the 19th century, but those had become illegible over the years.

The Mare Island Cemetery made the news in April 2011 after the Russian Consulate voluntarily replaced the worn headstones of the Russian sextet with granite crosses copied from the crew of the Lena. Unfortunately, because the cemetery is a National Historical Landmark, it is illegal to change it in any way. While the Russian Consul-General had applied for the appropriate permits, they had not been signed by the time the replacement work was done. The director of the nonprofit Mare Island Heritage Trust, Myrna Hayes, pushed for criminal charges to be filed against the Russian Consulate for vandalism. Apparently an uneasy peace has been reached, because the new monuments continue to stand.

The Mare Island Naval Cemetery closed on November 1, 1921. The Navy wanted to expand the adjacent powder magazine by moving the dead to another Vallejo or military cemetery and clearing the land. The sailors could have been transferred to the National Cemetery at San Francisco’s Presidio, but the Navy couldn’t disinter the civilians without permission of their families. In the end, securing permission seemed too complicated, so the cemetery simply closed down.

For years, it was overseen by the Bureau of Medicine. The cemetery was transferred to the Bureau of Yards and Docks in 1963. Following that, it was overseen by the Mare Island Naval Station. Now that the Navy is gone, it’s cared for by volunteers from the Mare Island Historic Park Foundation and the Vallejo Parks Department.

The cemetery’s final burial took place in 1983. Eleanor Gibson, related to former State Senator Luther Gibson had lived on the island as a child.  She made her burial arrangements many years before her death. Her ashes were buried in the Phelps family plot.

The Mare Island Naval Shipyard became a National Historic Landmark in 1975. The landmark’s boundaries include the Mare Island Strait, Causeway Street, Cedar Avenue, and Mesa, Ribeiro and Tyler Roads. Closed by the Navy in 1996, Mare Island was “conveyed” to the City of Vallejo in 2002.

Useful links:

Mare Island Historic Park Foundation website

A brief history of Mare Island

More Mare Island history

Story in the San Francisco Chronicle about the new Russian headstones

One of the docents has collected up stories of people buried here

Night photos of Mare Island

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Weekly Photo Challenge: On Top

The oculus in the dome of the San Francisco Columbarium

The oculus in the dome of the San Francisco Columbarium

I went to a funeral last week in one of the most beautiful places in San Francisco.  I’ve written about the columbarium before — I’ve visited it many times — but this was the first time I’ve been there for the purpose for which it was intended.

The dead man was the husband of a friend of mine, father to a daughter the same age as my own.  I didn’t know him well, but I love his wife, so I went to the celebration of his life.  It was perfect:  a slide show, a board with stories from his life, cards made by his daughter’s classmates, a table with portrait photos of him and the urn with his ashes.

Their daughter came over to say hi.  I told her my daughter sent her love. Then I asked, “Are you on spring break this week?”

“No,” she said.  “I’m skipping school today.”

I could tell she was troubled by the forbidden aspect of it, so I said gently, “I think you have a good reason.”

Her face froze and she nodded, then dodged off before I could apologize. Oh, well done, I thought.  You made a child cry at her father’s funeral.  I tried to imagine anything I might have said that wouldn’t have reminded her of her loss, but I came up blank.

Remembering my brother’s funeral, almost 12 years ago now, and how I could barely speak for grief, I forgave myself, because really there are no magic words that make the loss stop hurting.  There is no making it better.  The person you love is gone forever and your love has nowhere to go, so it turns on you and hurts you.  All you can do is keep going on, treasuring your memories and slowly, slowly, let your loved one go.

For all that I write about graveyards and their denizens, I haven’t found any wisdom with which to comfort others.  We die, but life goes on.  This young girl will grow up, fall in love, travel, find work, live a rich and full life, but she has lost something she will never get back:  her innocence, her sense of security, her daddy’s love.  Around her, the Columbarium was filled with beauty and fascinating stories.  Outside, the day was perfect: a flawless blue sky, 65 degrees, green grass, bright sun, birdsong.  I’m sure she didn’t even see that.

I walked back to my car, inarticulate with emotion.  I hadn’t lost anything today, but I could see the future so clearly:  the deaths of my parents, my friends, maybe my husband although he’s sworn never to die.  I have been lucky to have only lost my brother and my grandparents so far.  I think growing up is not buying a house, or having a child, or pursuing a career.  For me, it means learning to face all the loss to come.

I have so much to learn.

After I went to the service, I found this link on twitter.  It’s advice on how to support someone who is grieving.  I think I will turn to it often as my friend survives her loss.

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Cemetery of the Week #132: Rock Creek Cemetery

The beautiful entry gate to Rock Creek Cemetery

The beautiful entry gate to Rock Creek Cemetery

Rock Creek Cemetery
201 Allison St NW, Washington, DC 20011
Telephone: (202) 726-2080
Founded: 1719
Size: 86 acres
Numbers of interments: 13,000 interments or more
Open: Open daily, including holidays, from 8 am to 6 pm. The office is open weekdays from 9 am to 5 pm.
GPS coordinates for the Adams Memorial: 38° 56’ 55” N 77° 0’ 32” W

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Rock Creek Parish, began in 1712 as a mission church. It is the only surviving colonial church in what is now Washington, DC. According to the church’s website, “The cemetery’s beautiful, park-like setting is now a place of pilgrimage for people from all over the world, who come to see the remarkable variety of monuments and sculpture and often to visit the renowned Adams Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.”

In September 1719, vestryman Colonel John Bradford donated 100 acres for the support of the church, which determined the site of the chapel. The land was logged, then farmed, and the proceeds supported the church for many years. Almost from the start, though, the area directly surrounding the church was used as a burial ground for parishioners. Some of those old grave markers still survive.

View of the goldfish pond

View of the goldfish pond

In the 1830s, the church decided to expand the area it used for burials and convert its land from farming to a public graveyard. Inspired by the success of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, they utilized the natural rolling landscape when they laid out the roads like a rural cemetery. An Act of Congress established Rock Creek Cemetery as a burial ground for the city of Washington.

In the early 20th century, the church sold 14 acres of their graveyard for the construction of New Hampshire Avenue.

The Adams Memorial, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens

The Adams Memorial, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens

The memorial that everyone comes to see belongs to Henry Brooks Adams, a grandson of John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the US, and great-grandson of John Adams, the second president. Henry Brooks Adams himself was a Professor of Medieval History at Harvard. His autobiography won a Pulitzer Prize, but his considered The History of the United States of America 1801 to 1817 to be his masterwork. After his wife Marian (called Clover) committed suicide by poisoning herself with photographic chemicals in DC, he commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to sculpt a monument to her. The statue is commonly referred to as Grief, but Saint-Gaudens called it The Mystery of the Hereafter and the Peace of God that Passeth Understanding.

I assumed that a world-famous memorial might be easy to locate, but since we visited on a Sunday, the office was closed. Church had let out for the day, save for choir practice, which I didn’t want to interrupt. After wandering for an hour – and admiring lots of lovely sculpture – we turned to the internet. The photo I found on Findagrave showed the memorial on a hill, facing away from the slope. We couldn’t find that view anywhere. The first GPS coordinates my husband Mason found led us back to the cemetery gate. Eventually we were able to find a map of the cemetery online that included section designations. The Adams Memorial is in section E.

The Adams Memorial's cypress are in the distance here.

The Adams Memorial’s cypress are in the distance here.

After you enter the cemetery, head toward the church. Before you reach it, turn right. Down slope from you, you will see a family plot encircled by a hedge of cypress trees. You have to walk through the hedge to find the statue.

The cemetery has a wealth of lovely sculpture. These include Rabboni by Gutzon Borglum (sculptor of Mount Rushmore) on the grave of Charles M. Ffoulkes, a Washington banker who collected tapestries; The Seven Ages of Memory by William Ordway Partridge, on the grave of Samuel H. Kauffman, who owned the Washington Star; and Brenda Putnam’s statue of a child on Anna Simon’s grave. There are many, many more worth seeing.

Detail of the Seven Ages of Memory

Detail of the Seven Ages of Memory

Other famous burials include Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, Charles Francis Jenkins, the inventor of television; Abraham Baldwin, a signer of the Constitution; Charles Corby, the creator of Wonder Bread; Gilbert H. Grosvenor, chairman of the National Geographic Society; two mayors of Washington, three Union Army generals, and four Supreme Court Justices. There are also a number of family members of famous people: the father of Alexander Graham Bell, the grandfather of Douglas MacArthur, the sister of Edgar Allan Poe, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt.

My family took the metro to Fort Totten and then walked through the little park past the police station to North Capitol Street. That takes you to the back of the cemetery. One of the gates on North Capitol Street is open on Sunday mornings, when church is in session. Otherwise, you have to walk around to where Rock Creek Church Road meets Webster to find an open gate. It’s a hike and there are no facilities when the office is closed.  You might be better off to rent a car.

The Fort Totten/Michigan Park neighborhood seems to be reasonably safe. People on Street Advisor warn against petty crime and robbery, but we walked all over without any trouble.

Useful links:

Rock Creek Cemetery homepage

The National Park Service’s page on Rock Creek Cemetery

A Huffington Post feature on the cemetery

Cemetery history

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Adventures in Cemetery Travel

This is reblogged from the Western Legends Publishing blog, where it appeared almost two weeks ago.  I’ve been traveling and blogging from my phone was much more difficult than I expected.  This will be a new Cemetery of the Week tomorrow, though, so tune in again!

Adventures in Cemetery Travel

Click to order!

How did I pick all those cemeteries I visited in Wish You Were Here? That’s a funny story…

I visited the first cemetery by accident. I found a lovely book of cemetery photos — who knew such a thing existed? — in the bookshop at London’s Victoria Station. That was toward the end of our unexpected stay in England, but my husband Mason decided he would rather see beautiful, overgrown Highgate Cemetery than the Tower of London. It was the right choice.

We’d already planned to work Pere Lachaise Cemetery into our trip to Paris, because Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Chopin, and so many other famous people were buried there. I’d found a cemetery guidebook (my first!) calledPermanent Parisians in the Rand McNally store in San Francisco. That book also led us to the cemeteries of Montparnasse and St. Vincent and the Paris Municipal Ossuary, but I wasn’t such a geek yet that we saw a single graveyard when we visited Amsterdam that same trip.

For a while after that, I simply stumbled on cemeteries. My mom saw the sign for the Pioneer Cemetery in Yosemite while I was looking for the anthropology museum. Jack London just happened to be buried at the State Historical Park that bears his name. A friend was touring St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans and encouraged me to come along.

Other places had such an impact on history that I wanted to see them for myself. When Mason and I went to Japan for the first time, I wanted to go out of our way to see Hiroshima and the Peace Park. When my mom took me to Honolulu, I went alone by tour bus on Easter morning to see Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial. I ducked out of a family trip to Washington DC to visit Arlington National Cemetery.

Then I started to get a reputation. Japanese friends took us to the old capitol of Kamakura to show me a monks’ graveyard. A friend who’d grown up in Westchester County said I shouldn’t miss the Old Dutch Burying Ground in Sleepy Hollow. Other friends gave us a private tour of the Soldiers National Cemetery and battlefield at Gettysburg.

By the time Mason and I went to Italy in 2001, we were building our vacations around cemeteries. In Rome, I targeted the Protestant Cemetery, final home of Keats and Shelley. In Venice, I wanted to see the island set aside as a graveyard, where Stravinsky is buried. Strangely enough, my goal in Florence was La Specola, the jaw-dropping medical museum — but we managed to score an hour alone in the English Cemetery, where Elizabeth Barrett Browning is buried. It had the most amazing iconography. Oh, and we discovered that the roads into the archaeological site at Pompeii are lined with tombs, although that story didn’t make it into Wish You Were Here.

Graveyards are everywhere you go. Next time you travel, take a look.

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Cemetery as garden and vice versa

Gardens and Graveyards of the Southeastern Seaboard: A Photographic JourneyGardens and Graveyards of the Southeastern Seaboard: A Photographic Journey by Henry Clay Childs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The lure of silent places — gardens can be as tranquil as graveyards — leads each of us more easily to reflection and remembrance, revelation and joy.” That sentiment inspires this gorgeous full-color photo book. Every page is graced by a 7 x 9-inch photo, which reproduces a rainbow of greens and grays, highlighted with bright flowers.

On his travels between Popes Creek, Virginia and Cumberland Island, Georgia, Henry Clay Childs stopped off to visit the only unaltered American colonial church, graves of the earliest European settlers as well as George Washington’s ancestors, graveyards of villages abandoned after the Civil War, and the elegant cemeteries of Savannah.

Childs saw a graveyard anywhere dreams were buried and a garden wherever flowers bloomed, so there’s a great deal of fluidity in this definitions. This book will delight anyone who takes pleasure in beauty, whether they’ve previously been cemetery aficionados or not.

Even your mom might like these beautiful photographs.

These books are going for a song on Amazon.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

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