If you’ve ever visited remote parts of England, you may have come across old footpaths marked “church way” or “corpse road,” once used by pallbearers to bring the dead to church cemeteries for burial. These pathways became magnets for superstition and tales of ghosts and ghouls. San Francisco may not have the same traditions, but many of our most heavily-used streets were once used to convey the dead to cemeteries throughout the city. Some of them were improved specifically to make it easier to get to San Francisco’s graveyards.
In medieval times, English pastors established footpaths exclusively for the purpose of carrying the dead to the graveyards attached to their churches. This served two purposes: it kept the dead within the church community, and raised money, through burial fees, for the churches. But corpse roads didn’t always lead to the closest church; you might attend one several miles from home. These were long, exhausting journeys for the pallbearers, who walked for hours or days across difficult terrain to lay their loved ones to rest.
Earlier this year, I attended an online talk by British writer SJ Farrer on corpse roads. Medieval Brits took care to keep the spirits of the dead from using these roads to return home, she says. They swept these footpaths regularly to remove spirit energies, and many lych ways crossed creeks and rivers, because people believed that spirits could not cross running water. I couldn’t help wondering which paths San Francisco’s European settlers — many of whom came from England and Ireland — might have used to bring their dead to local cemeteries.
Between 1776 and 1901, San Francisco was home to about 30 small and large cemeteries, most of which have since been dug up and moved to Colma. First, I needed to figure out where those burial grounds were located. Then I needed to determine what roads, if any, were there to convey mourners to the graveyards. Then I needed to map out reports of hauntings in San Francisco to see if there was any correlation. I found many.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of former cemeteries, corpse roads, or hauntings. If nothing else, while doing this research I learned that San Francisco is a very haunted place.
1. Dolores, Mission and Valencia streets
When the Spanish Franciscans established Misión San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores) in 1776, there were zero roads in this part of San Francisco. But they did create some wide dirt paths, including one that ran in front of the Mission church and cemetery, that are still there today. That path later became Dolores Street, although Dolores Street is much straighter than the winding path that once served this area. And, when it came time to make Dolores Street one uniform width, in 1889, a portion of the cemetery that extended beyond the eastern line of the church building was lopped off and the graves moved, many to Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma.
Once the Gold Rush brought more people to San Francisco, the Mission Dolores area became a destination for entertainment and nightlife. In 1850, entrepreneur Col. Charles Wilson proposed building a plank road from downtown to the Mission, roughly where Mission street is now. He told leaders that he would pay for the construction, as long as he could charge tolls on it. The city, which didn’t have any money at the time, agreed. Crews had to cut through a huge sand dune where Third Street is today, and build a bridge over the deep bog where Seventh Street is today, but the plank road was ultimately a success and became the main way to get to the Mission area.
Valencia Street later became a major thoroughfare for funeral processions. Several mortuaries dotted the street, where coffins were loaded onto streetcars and ferried south to Colma for burial. And, in the late 1800s, Dolores Street later brought mourners to two Jewish Cemeteries located where Dolores Park is today.
Notre Dame Senior Plaza: Private sources have told me that this building, located across Dolores Street from the Mission Dolores cemetery, is haunted.
The Chapel: This nightclub on Valencia Street, a former mortuary, is home to one or more ghosts, including a young girl, according to Chapel employees.
The Chronicle building: Located on Mission at Fifth. Longtime Chron reporter Peter Hartlaub swears that the newspaper’s archives are haunted.
2. Sansome and Montgomery streets
Mission Dolores was a fine place to be buried if you were Catholic, but what if you weren’t? An unofficial Sailor’s Burying Ground was established in 1825, in the area bounded today by Sansome, Vallejo, Battery and Broadway. It was right on the waterfront back then, and it became a place to bury sailors who died aboard ships headed for San Francisco. Locals sometimes called it the Sansome Street Cemetery, which is a strong indication of which road you’d use to get there.
But there’s a catch: Parts of Sansome were underwater at the time the Sailor’s Burying Ground was active. It’s possible people traveling by land would have used Montgomery Street. There were two other unofficial cemeteries along Montgomery: one bounded by Montgomery, Pine, Sansome and Bush streets, and the other by Montgomery, Leidesdorff and Pine.
The Palace Hotel, on the corner of two corpse roads — Market and Montgomery — is allegedly haunted by the ghost of President Warren Harding, who died there in 1923.
3. Powell Street
San Francisco’s first semi-official cemetery was located in North Beach, bounded by today’s Powell, Greenwich, Stockton and Filbert streets. The North Beach Cemetery, sometimes called the Powell Street Cemetery, saw its first burials in the 1840s, when this land was far removed from city life. But by 1850, it was full and falling into ruin. San Francisco opened Yerba Buena Cemetery, located where Civic Center is today, in 1850, and hired a contractor to move the North Beach burials to Yerba Buena. The work was shoddily done — people’s remains were piled in the street, then tossed into carts for removal — and left unfinished. Local businessman (and later alderman) Henry Mieggs paid for the removal work to be completed, and for Powell Street to be extended beyond the cemetery site.
St. Francis Hotel: This world-famous hotel on Union Square is said to be haunted by the ghost of singer Al Jolson, who died here during a poker game. Fatty Arbuckle sometimes joins him.
4. Market Street
By the time Yerba Buena Cemetery opened in 1850, on 11 acres between Market, Larkin and McAllister streets, Market Street had become a more or less accessible roadway through the sand dunes and creeks. Larkin was the western city limit at the time, and city planners thought this area would be a good spot for a remote cemetery for at least 50 years. It was full within 10. Locals could have come from many directions to bring their loved ones to Yerba Buena for burial, but Market Street was one of the better options.
The Flood Building: is allegedly haunted by the ghosts of people who died in a fire in 1898, when a hotel stood on this site.
The Warfield: This vaudeville theater turned music venue is full of ghosts. The Haunted Bay and Alameda Paranormal Researchers investigated the site extensively, and you can watch their episodes on the Warfield here, here and here.
The Market Street Cinema: The ghosts of a dead janitor and an unidentified woman are allegedly regularly spotted by visitors to this former movie theater.
City Hall: Although it’s a block away from the western edge of the former Yerba Buena Cemetery, there are numerous private reports of ghosts flitting around in the building, particularly at night.
5. Pacific Avenue and Bush Street
In 1854, the city opened Lone Mountain Cemetery on 170 acres of land on and around Lone Mountain. At first, the best way to get out there was along Pacific Street (now Pacific Avenue), though this was not an easy journey. “The present mode of access to the cemetery is by a circuitous route, nearly four miles in length, by way of Pacific street and the presidio.” But by late 1854, with help from the cemetery, Bush Street opened from downtown to the gates of the burial ground, which established a main entrance at Bush Street and Cemetery Avenue (now Presidio Avenue).
The Hotel Emblem (formerly the Hotel Rex): This hotel’s entrance is on Sutter Street, but the block it’s on touches Bush Street as well. Several guests have reported seeing a ghost who roams the halls.
The Queen Anne Hotel: Also on Sutter, but touching Bush, this hotel is allegedly haunted by the ghost of Miss Mary Lake, the head of a girl’s school that operated here in the 1890s. Her former office is now Room 410.
The Sutter Building: This medical office building at 450 Sutter Street, touching Bush, is apparently home to shadowy black figures that regularly terrorize security personnel at night.
6. Presidio Avenue, Masonic Avenue and Turk Boulevard
In its early days, Presidio Avenue was called Cemetery Avenue because it provided a main route to get to the cemeteries on Lone Mountain, including Laurel Hill and Calvary cemeteries. Masonic Avenue got its name from the Masonic Cemetery, just south of Lone Mountain, although the cemetery had an entrance on Turk Street. Turk Street would have also gotten you to the Odd Fellows and Greco Russian Cemeteries located in this massive cluster of burial grounds.
The Whittier Mansion: The former home of William Franklin Whittier is located on Jackson Street, on a block that touches Presidio Avenue. Shadowy figures allegedly haunt the basement “with hot and cold running chills.”
Great Star Theater: Chinatown’s famed cinema and theater, on Jackson Street touching Pacific, is reportedly home to at least one ghost. The Haunted Bay and Alameda Paranormal Researchers call it one of the most haunted places in the Bay Area.
7. Geary Boulevard
San Francisco established City Cemetery, also called Golden Gate Cemetery, at the far reaches of the city in 1868. It was bounded by 33rd and 48th Avenues, the Pacific Ocean to the north and the Point Lobos Toll Road, now Geary Boulevard, to the south. The toll road ran from Kearny and Clay streets all the way to the Cliff House, and offered another way to get to the Lone Mountain cemeteries for folks who had enough money to bury their loved ones there. City Cemetery was largely for poor and immigrant residents who couldn’t afford a stately tomb or statue to mark their resting place on Lone Mountain. As the outer Richmond District expanded, the southernmost part of City Cemetery was removed so that Clement Street could be extended to Land’s End.
The Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum: Located right in the middle of the old City Cemetery, it’s reportedly haunted. That’s understandable, considering that many early San Franciscans are still buried underneath and nearby.
The San Francisco Columbarium: The Odd Fellows built this gorgeous mausoleum on their cemetery plot, located on the western slope of Lone Mountain. A visitor reported that an unseen hand gripped theirs, leaving a mark.
Curran Theater: The ghost of a ticket-booth worker who was murdered in this Geary Street theater allegedly still hangs around and sometimes appears in the lobby mirror.
8. San Jose Avenue and the Caltrain tracks
Once Colma was established as San Francisco’s necropolis — the main place for locals to bury their dead — a fleet of somberly painted streetcars was established to carry coffins to their final destinations. Some of these ran down Valencia Street past the mortuaries; others followed today’s Mission-14 bus line, along Mission Street. At the south end of the Mission District, they would have run along the railroad tracks now in the center of San Jose Avenue through the Bernal Cut, loosely following today’s San Jose Avenue southward to Colma.
Another railway carried the dead south along the Southern Pacific tracks, with a spur that ran through a corner of San Bruno Mountain. You can still see one side of this railway tunnel where Cal-Rite Services is today, sealed shut and covered in graffiti. It’s likely where Tunnel Avenue, which runs parallel to the tracks now used by Caltrain, got its name.
None on record, so far.
9. The Presidio:
Several current and former cemeteries are located in the Presidio, including the San Francisco National Cemetery, which is closed to new interments but still accepts previously arranged burials of military veterans and their families, an early Spanish-Mexican Cemetery located where the Main Post is today, a Pet Cemetery and a cemetery for people who died at the Marine Hospital out on Wedemeyer Street.