Cemetery of the Week #143: Union Cemetery

The Grand Army of the Republic plot at Union Cemetery

The Grand Army of the Republic plot at Union Cemetery

Union Cemetery
316 Woodside Road
Redwood City, California 94061
Established: 1859
Size: 6 acres remain
Number of interments: 2500 or so
Open: dawn to dusk

After the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ceded California to the United States, California was proclaimed a state on July 4, 1848. Luckily for America, Mexico hadn’t heard the news that gold had been discovered in the soon-to-be-named American River on January 24, 1848.

As soon as the news got out, one of the largest migrations the world has seen began. Hundreds of thousands (mostly men, mostly young) descended, hoping to find their fortunes.

In 1850, sailors discovered that Redwood Creek, nearly 30 miles south of San Francisco, is a natural deep-water channel that empties into the Bay. This became useful when, a year later, men began to cut down the redwood trees in the Santa Cruz Mountains running down the outer edge of the peninsula. At the foot of the mountains, the redwoods were milled into lumber, which was then floated down the creek to wharves along what came to be called the Port of Redwood City. From there, the wood was shipped to the towns springing up everywhere during the Gold Rush.

A village originally called Redwood Landing took root beside the creek. Its earliest burial ground stood on land owned by William Cary Jones. He’d allowed 13 burials there, but after Horace Hawes purchased the land, he wanted the graveyard moved. The little town was forced to start a proper cemetery.

Many of the people buried here were children. The Palmer children died of diptheria.

Many of the people buried here were children. The Palmer children died of diptheria.

Early in 1859, a cemetery association purchased land along Woodside Road. They oversaw the cemetery’s design and sold burial plots, but since they weren’t incorporated, they deeded the cemetery to the Governor of California — and his successors — as trustees. This led to California’s first cemetery legislation, as the government didn’t wish to be made responsible for every graveyard in the state.

The Union Cemetery’s name “reflects the controversy that erupted in the Civil War, three years after the cemetery’s beginning,” according to the historical plaque placed at the cemetery. “Founders of the cemetery strongly opposed the secessionist sentiment that threatened the nation’s unity.”

Jean Cloud, one of the first docents at the cemetery, believed this was the first Union Cemetery in the United States, since it was named before the Civil War began.

Union Cemetery’s first burial was a four-year-old girl named Ana (or Annie) Douglass. The brochure published by the Historic Union Cemetery Association, says she was the granddaughter of Benjamin F. Fox, San Mateo’s first judge. Annie and her brother were initially buried on the Hawes’ farm, but they were moved here to rest in the family plot.

Approximately forty veterans of the Civil War rest in the Grand Army of the Republic plot, along with a pair of wives and “a drinking buddy.” One of the men in the cemetery (though not in the GAR plot itself) was a survivor of the California 100, who fought at 23 major Civil War battles and was at Appomattox when General Lee surrendered.

Death on a headstone in Union Cemetery

Death on a headstone in the Masonic plot in the Union Cemetery

During the Depression, San Mateo County’s poor were buried in a potter’s field section of Union Cemetery, which lay along Woodside Road. Ellen Crawford, current president of the Historic Union Cemetery Association, says her research indicates that the bodies were not moved when the road was widened to four lanes in the 1960s. She believes several hundred bodies continue to lie beneath Woodside Road.

When the original Union Cemetery Association petered out in 1918, no one took over maintenance of the cemetery. Of the more than 2200 documented burials, only 700 graves are marked. Some graves originally had nothing more permanent than a redwood cross or fences. Weather and time defaced many of those markers, but vandals destroyed even more.

Burials came slower and slower after 1940, when anyone who could afford it wanted to be buried elsewhere, rather than in the neglected patch alongside the busy road. The final burial took place in 1963.

Even though it took no responsibility for it, the State of California continued to own the cemetery until 1962. Then it quitclaimed the cemetery to Redwood City. By then, forty-some years of neglect — and vandalism — had taken quite a toll.

Closeup of the current Union soldier

Closeup of the current Union soldier

In fact, the Historic Union Cemetery Association “was founded just to protect the statue of the Union Soldier,” which stands over the Grand Army plot, according to San Mateo County historian Michael Svanevik. The statue of a Union soldier leaning on his rifle was originally purchased by Mrs. Jane Stanford, widow of the founder of Stanford University . The soldier came in pieces that could be screwed together. The plinth it stands upon is actually more valuable than the statue, according to Svanevik, because it is unique. There are literally thousands of that same statue.

The statue was vandalized multiple times and completely replaced twice. The current statue was paid for by the Historic Union Cemetery Association’s fundraising.

Victim of the 1906 earthquake. Stone repaired by the Historic Association.

Victim of the 1906 earthquake. Stone repaired by the Historic Association.

The Association continues its good work. One by one, the fences which encircled the old plots are being repaired or replaced. Headstones have been pried out of the dirt and reset. The Association offers tours on a variety of subjects. (I was there just last month with the San Francisco Obscura Society for a wonderfully morbid tour.) On Memorial Day, they celebrate their veterans with an old-time anvil launching: two blacksmith’s anvils are placed one atop the other, with black powder in between. It’s worth going to the Association’s extensive website just to see the photos.

Useful links:

Home page of the Union Cemetery (with flying anvil)

Timeline of the Union Cemetery

History of the Union Cemetery

Photos of the Union Cemetery


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