With its stunning views of the Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate, Point Lobos, the site of the Legion of Honor, is one of the most spectacular places in San Francisco. And it has an equally dramatic history. It was the climax of the first visit by Europeans to San Francisco — and the home of a cemetery that boasted not one, but two, claims to ghoulish fame.
On December 4, 1774, a Spanish officer named Fernando Rivera y Moncada led a party of explorers along Ocean Beach, up Point Lobos, past the site of the future Cliff House. Somewhere on the edge of the precipice, near the site of present-day Fort Miley or the Legion of Honor, Rivera and his men stopped and looked out over the Golden Gate and the Marin Headlands. They were the first non–American Indians to behold the great gap in the coastal range.
Rivera’s superiors wanted him to establish a settlement in San Francisco, but he decided the site was too barren and windy and headed back to Monterey. Before he left, however, he erected a cross on the cliff to serve as a beacon for future parties. It was the first signpost put up in San Francisco.
More crosses began to adorn the area starting in 1868, when the City turned it into the Golden Gate Cemetery, also called the City Cemetery. The burial ground included a large potter’s field, where indigent or unclaimed bodies were interred, as well as a Chinese cemetery. The latter played a creepy role in two of the weirder tales in the annals of San Francisco burials.
Many early Chinese immigrants wanted their bones to be interred in China, not in barbarous America. To facilitate this, they would arrange to have their bodies temporarily buried at the Golden Gate Cemetery. When the flesh had rotted away from the bones, the skeleton would be exhumed and shipped in a barrel back to China. The City received a $10 fee for every skeleton shipped. To avoid paying this fee, some Chinese, with the connivance of white officials who got a piece of the action, labeled the human skeletons as “fish bones.” According to an April 1900 exposé in the Call newspaper, the City was defrauded of thousands of dollars this way.
That was not the only unsavory practice associated with the old Chinese section of the Golden Gate Cemetery. Chinese would leave baked meats and other delicacies at the graves of loved ones, to provide sustenance for their spirits. According to Charles Caldwell Dobie in San Francisco: A Pageant, “In a bygone day, the cemetery was the haunt of ghoul-like hoboes who regaled them-selves on roast pig and sweetmeats once the funeral cortege had disappeared.”
Lincoln Park and its golf course replaced the Golden Gate Cemetery in 1909. But the Chinese section of the old cemetery is still marked by large stone grave markers on the first and 13th fairways — mute reminders of a burial ground with a very fishy past.