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In a little valley ringed by trees on the edge of the Presidio of San Francisco is a lost cemetery containing the graves of hundreds of merchant seamen, buried years ago and forgotten.
The graves are unmarked and the names of many buried there are unknown.
The cemetery itself, located just beyond the closed Public Health Service Hospital near 15th Avenue and Lake Street, is invisible. The graves, which once had neat wooden headstones enclosed by a fence, were buried under 16 feet of debris from excavations of a missile site in the 1950s.
A parking lot was built at the same time over one corner of the graveyard and a tennis court over another.
And then the cemetery was forgotten — literally covered up.
Now, archaeologists from the Presidio Trust, which operates the former Army post, are looking into the lost cemetery with an eye to explaining it to the public.
It is an eerie spot, even now. The cemetery is located behind the derelict and abandoned hulk of the old hospital, which looks a bit like a shipwreck. Its windows are broken and the walls are covered with graffiti. There is not a single sign explaining what lies under the weeds in the little valley of the dead.
It is a story waiting to be told, said Jennifer McCann, an intern who works in the Presidio Trust archaeology office. “It is just waiting to be interpreted to the public.”
The cemetery had its beginnings more than 130 years ago when the U.S. Treasury Department leased land at the Presidio to set up the San Francisco Marine Hospital, which took care of the health needs of merchant mariners.
The hospital opened in 1875. In 1881, the adjacent cemetery was first mentioned in records of the Marine Hospital Service. Burials continued there for at least 31 years, or until 1912.
Those years marked the high tide of San Francisco as the greatest port on the Pacific Coast. The city’s docks were full of sailing ships and steamers. It was what is called the Age of Sail, a time now regarded with fondness and nostalgia.
However, in those days, sailors were outcasts, men with no families, who worked long hours under brutal conditions. A look at the cemetery records of the Marine Hospital shows that most of the dead were young. Many were in their 20s.
Most of the deaths were the result of respiratory diseases, like tuberculosis. “I think probably dampness and hard labor killed them,” said McCann, who has been studying the records most of this year. “If you found someone in his 50s in this hospital, he was thought to be really old,” she said.
McCann said various estimates put the number of graves from 200 to 800. “My guess is between 600 and 700 people are buried there.”
In the spring of 1896, the San Francisco Call newspaper ran a feature article on “the almost unheard of” sailors’ cemetery. “A desert spot,” the paper said, “a valley dreary with stunted growths and hummocks of half-tamed sand dunes.”
Here lay “men who sailed into the port of San Francisco and never sailed away again through the Golden Gate,” the Call said, “rough sailors who are now God knows where.”
San Francisco had four, and sometimes five, newspapers in the era of the Marine Hospital, but the graveyard was never mentioned again in the public press. One reason might be that 80 percent of the dead sailors were foreign. Most had no families; the sailor’s grave was a pauper’s grave. “It seems likely that most of these men have no living descendants,” McCann said.
In 1912, the country’s marine hospitals were renamed Public Health Service Hospitals.
In 1931, a new hospital building replaced the 1875 facility. Photographs from the 1930s show the cemetery with rows of wooden tombstones.
In 1952, the hospital expanded and money was appropriated to move the cemetery, but apparently this was never done. “Instead, they built a new wing,” said McCann. “It was easy to kick over headstones.” Then the cemetery was covered with debris.
By 1981, the hospital had been ordered closed.
John Sammons, the facility’s last chief of environmental technology, said he remembers seeing a certificate in the files that said the graves had all been moved. He didn’t believe it. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that the cemetery is still there,” he said.
The Army, which got the land back from the Public Health Service, found that the old cemetery was called Landfill 8.
“I noticed a cemetery on an old map,” said Sannie Osborn, a Presidio Trust archaeologist who was working for the Army Corps of Engineers in the ’90s. “I borrowed a backhoe and a backhoe operator, and did a small excavation,” Osborne said. “We found two coffins.”
“Due to the extremely embarrassing nature of the discovery,” McCann wrote in a report she did this summer, “it was kept very quiet.”
The Army marched out of the Presidio in 1996, and the old military base was turned over to the National Park Service and the nonprofit Presidio Trust. The two organizations started looking into the historical past of the old post. And when McCann, who is studying for her master’s degree at San Francisco State University , was assigned as an intern, the story of the graveyard was brought to light.
Now, says Jody Sanford, a public affairs specialist for the Presidio Trust, the plan is to develop a scenario to open the area for public viewing and put up signs to explain the Marine Cemetery with an appropriate memorial. The abandoned Public Service Hospital may be turned into housing.
But the old sailors will not be moved. “We do not plan to exhume them,” Sanford said.
They will remain in what historian Matthew Brady called “the fo’c’sle of the dead.”
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