Why decorate with fake Halloween ghosts and cobwebs when it’s so easy to get to the real graveyards of Colma? You might find peace and solace – or maybe a spooky chill.
The dead and the living
In the 50 years from the Gold Rush to the turn of the century, San Francisco’s population increased from roughly 1,000 to more than 300,000. The numbers of dead were increasing, too. People started to realize that urban real estate might be more profitably used by the living than the dead. In 1902, city cemeteries were closed to new burials. In the 1920s, politicians ordered the complete removal of most cemeteries. The eternal rest of tens of thousands of former San Franciscans was disturbed when graves were opened, bodies exhumed, and the remains sent south to Colma.
Today, there are 17 cemeteries in this small San Mateo County town, including one for pets. Colma’s live population hovers around 1,600. The dead number about 1.5 million.
This 2-mile walk starts at the Colma BART Station and introduces you to just four cemeteries. As you exit BART, turn left on D Street and follow it downhill. Woodlawn Memorial Park is to your right when you get to El Camino Real (also called Mission Road) – just beyond a Magic Kingdom-like entrance. To visit the grave of San Francisco’s lovable, crazy Emperor Joshua A. Norton, ask at the office for a map and directions, or just stay on the left-most uphill roads until you get to sector H. Chocolate-maker Etienne Guittard is also buried at Woodlawn.
Hills of eternity and home of peace
From Woodlawn, cross to the other side of El Camino and continue south for a little more than half a mile (past the Italian, Salem and Greenlawn cemeteries) to the entrance of Hills of Eternity. To visit the monument to jeans-maker Levi Strauss, turn left behind the mausoleum into Home of Peace, then right on Middle Road up to Section C-2. To visit gunslinger, lawman and gambler Wyatt Earp (remember the O.K. Corral?), turn right in front of Levi Strauss, walk to the main road, turn left until you see the C. Meyer family monument. Earp is back in the fourth row.
As you continue south on El Camino, Cypress Lawn cemetery spans both sides of the road. The more spectacular tombstones and statues are on the east side, to your left. Canada geese, seagulls and pigeons enjoy the lake next to the entrance. Follow slightly uphill through the fairy-tale archway to the East Side Gardens beyond. This nondenominational cemetery provides a permanent home for newspaper tycoons William Randolph Hearst and Charles de Young, baseball great “Lefty” O’Doul, cable-car inventor Andrew Hallidie, and jazz musician Turk Murphy.
Where to eat
Where Old Mission Road splits from El Camino, stay left on Mission and continue through a light industrial zone to Molloy’s Tavern on your right, at 1655 Mission Road. For a bit of refreshment before you continue, nip into this historic pub.
Holy Cross is just across the street from Molloy’s and down Mission Road. Stop at the office inside the main entrance and pick up a map. You’ll see the grave locations of baseball great Joe DiMaggio (bats are often left in tribute), Jerry Brown’s father, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, Bank of America founder A.P. Giannini, former Mayor George Moscone, and jazz musician and creator of the Peanuts television score Vince Guaraldi.
Leaving Holy Cross, continue on Mission Road. The South San Francisco BART Station is on your right, past the intersection of Lawndale Boulevard.
Good to know
Dogs are generally not welcome. Most cemeteries are open sunrise to sunset, but Hills of Eternity is closed on Saturdays and every day at 4 p.m. To organize a personalized tour, contact the Colma Historical Association at (650) 757-1676.
Public transportation: Take BART to the Colma Station to start. At the end, catch BART again at the South San Francisco station.
By car: Take Interstate 280 south from San Francisco. Merge onto San Jose Avenue, via exit 50, toward Highway 82. Stay on San Jose Avenue, which becomes Highway 82. In about 2 miles, Woodlawn Cemetery will be on the right.
Urban Outings are presented by Greenbelt Alliance, the Bay Area’s advocate for protecting open spaces and creating vibrant places. To suggest an Urban Outing, contact Eileen Keremitsis, tour leader for S.F. City Guides and author of “Frommer’s 24 Great Walks in San Francisco.” (Gail Todd will return.) To find out more about Greenbelt Alliance’s work, visit www.greenbelt.org.
– Eileen Keremitsis, firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared on page GF – 23 of the San Francisco Chronicle