Cemetery of the Week #83: United States Marine Hospital Cemetery

Entrance to the cemetery monument

United States Marine Hospital Cemetery
Near 15th Avenue and Lake Street, behind the Presidio Landmark Building, off the Mountain Lake Trail
GPS coordinates: 37° 47’ 20” N 122° 28’ 28” W
Presidio National Park
San Francisco, California
Founded: 1881
Size: unknown
Number of interments: As many as 600
Open: always

A Marine Hospital was established on San Francisco’s Presidio in 1875. The hospital provided health care to maritime laborers who had come to the US from all over the world. Shipboard medicine being what it was, many of them arrived in San Francisco in time to die at the hospital.

Records indicate that the hospital began burying indigent sailors, without family or funds to send their bodies home, on its grounds in 1881. Where they were buried before that is unknown, although the nearby City Cemetery – now the Lincoln Park Golf Course surrounding the Palace of the Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museum – is a possibility. In 1883, the Ladies’ Seamen’s Friends Society purchased a plot for sailors in City Cemetery. The monument they erected continues to stand in the park.

Sailors died of cancer, cirrhosis, diabetes, heart disease, pneumonia, syphilis, scurvy, and tuberculosis, among other things. Initially, they were buried in their own clothes in redwood coffins provided by the hospital. Later, when the hospital built its own crematory, they were cremated and buried in bronze urns.

The Marine Cemetery monument

The site was used only until 1912. San Francisco had passed a law in 1902 forbidding burials within city limits. Technically, this did not apply to the hospital, since it stood on Presidio grounds, overseen by the US Army – who continue, to this day, to bury soldiers in the San Francisco National Cemetery, also inside the Presidio.

By the 1930s, the Marine Cemetery lay in ruins. It had only ever had temporary whitewashed wooden markers stuck into its sandy soil. The cemetery was forgotten and used as a dump. In 1969, the Veterans Administration, which had taken over the hospital, covered the old graveyard with a parking lot. Only when the US Army prepared to abandon the Presidio in 1989 did the Corps of Engineers rediscover the cemetery. By then, it was buried under 10 feet of debris.

The map to Marine Cemetery Vista stands beyond a parking lot off Wedemeyer Street.

The Presidio Archaeology Lab studied old records and learned that as many as 600 sailors from 30 states and 43 countries remained buried at the site. Also buried there are a hospital attendant, a nurse, a gardener, and the stillborn son of one of the hospital’s doctors.

The National Park Service took over control of the Presidio in 1996. Not until 2011 was a stone plaque placed to honor those buried at the Marine Hospital Cemetery. It’s not easy to find, even when you’re committed to looking for it. I wandered at length, until I stumbled upon the strange unmarked wooden fence standing in the middle of a dune covered with off-limit native plants. By following the boardwalk up onto the platform, I discovered the black granite stone set down onto the face of the dune. It’s only visible through a window in the boardwalk.

The former Veterans Administration Hospital, now an apartment building

According to Where Jack is at Rest: The Marine Hospital Cemetery at the Presidio of San Francisco, published by the Presidio Archaeology Center, the plan was to leave the bodies in place “without further disturbance of their graves.” However, if I were to nominate a place in San Francisco that deserves to be haunted, it’s this long-forgotten corner of the Presidio where the dead did not get due respect.

The old Marine Hospital is now an apartment building.

Useful links:
The Presidio’s site for the cemetery

Text of Where Jack is at Rest

Poster describing the causes of death at the Marine Hospital Cemetery

The Park Service’s Presidio site

CemeteryRegistry.us listing

9 responses to “Cemetery of the Week #83: United States Marine Hospital Cemetery

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