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San Francisco, California

Aquatic Park Tombstones

Visible below the waves are memorials to the city's Gold Rush dead. 

In order to build a new, swimmer-friendly waterfront on the bay, San Francisco looked to an unusual building supply they just happened to have lying around: Gold Rush era tombstones.

San Francisco’s Aquatic Park was created on one of the city’s most significant portions of the waterfront - a packed and bustling neighborhood from the city’s earliest days until the destruction of the 1906 earthquake conveniently cleared the way for new building.

Developed between 1936-39 as part of one of many WPA projects in the city, the carefully constructed swimming zone is protected from the rough waters of the bay by a purpose-built breakwater made up of stones harvested from the relocation of the city’s cemeteries to Colma between 1914 and 1941.

San Francisco’s cemeteries had already filled to capacity by the turn of the last century, and disease-fearing residents and land-hungry developers alike began looking at the possibility of evicting the dead. In 1902, it became illegal to bury new bodies in the city. By 1921, the bodies were being moved en masse to new digs in Colma, to the south of the city. By 1941 nearly all of the cemeteries were gone, and largely forgotten.

Most of the city’s early dead that filled the early cemeteries were loners - miners and immigrants who died in the city’s rough and tumble wild west years, and were consequently long forgotten by the time the decision to move the dead came along. These bodies ended up in mass graves in Colma, and their tombstones were put in the city’s rubble pile, to be used in building projects in the growing city.

After their owners found their way to new homes in Colma’s vast necropolis, the huge numbers of unclaimed tombstones ended up being used in breakwaters in the Marina District, as path liners at Buena Vista Park, and here at Aquatic Park, where the distinctive stones can still be made out at low tide.

More recently, a cache of old stones were used to build the wonderful Wave Organ near the St. Francis Yacht Club.

Today, only three cemeteries remain in the city of San Francisco, at Mission Dolores, the San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio (where there is also a diminutive pet cemetery), and the lovely Richmond District Columbarium.