As I wrote in a story published today, Mt. Hope Cemetery is home to dead people with no tombstones.
Oddly enough, the cemetery also has tombstones with no dead people.
Their story begins across town in Mission Hills at Pioneer Park, a pleasant grassy plot of land near the junction of Washington Street and University Avenue.
The land served as a Catholic cemetery from the 1870s through the 20th century, becoming the resting place for prominent families with names like Bandini and Couts.
But the cemetery became a neglected eyesore, and the city decided to use powers granted by the state and turn it into a community park.
All the 800-odd memorial markers were taken away in the 1970s except for a line of tombstones left on the park’s edge. Left as a memorial, they’re still there.
The dead remained too, and they haven’t gone anywhere either, resting quietly as children play above.
And that was that. Well, at least until riders on a newly built line of the San Diego Trolley discovered something unusual in a remote part of Mt. Hope Cemetery in the 1980s.
Patty Fares, a tour guide who takes visitors on annual walking tours of the cemetery, picks up the story.
“It was a christening run and city officials were on board,” Fares said. They rode through the cemetery, “and there was this big pile of tombstones that had been dumped in a ravine.”
This discovery didn’t go over well.
As the story goes, the tombstones were later buried, except for a handful that were encased in concrete above ground in the ravine as a memorial.
In 1983, according to a newspaper story, city leaders demanded that the underground tombstones be returned to Pioneer Park. It’s not clear whether the buried tombstones are still there, although the memorial remains.
Whatever the case, the tombstone graveyard remain a topic of conversation during Fares’ walking tours.
One year, a woman was shocked to hear the history of the broken tombstones. “She grew up in that area, and her jaw drops,” Fares recalled. “She said, ‘So that’s what they were!’
“She said she and her bother used to climb on those as kids. They thought they were just piles of concrete-type blocks. They had no idea what they were scrambling on,” Fares said.
People who take Fares’ walking tours are a bit cynical about the story of the tombstone graveyard, especially if they live here.
“Most people are shocked, but it’s more like an ‘Oh gawd, it figures’ kind of reaction,” she said. “It’s sad, but it’s true that people have gotten a little cynical about government. Maybe especially San Diego’s.”
Here are a few other interesting tales from Mt. Hope’s history:
- A local synagogue began burying Jewish residents in a reserved part of the cemetery in the 1890s. The cemetery still has a Jewish section today.
Chinese people, Masons, the Odd Fellows organization and Civil War veterans from the Union Army also got special sections of the cemetery, according to one account.
- In one amazing night of vandalism in 1941, someone — or more likely a number of someones — desecrated more than 400 tombstones.
- In the 1960s, the San Diego City Council considered selling the cemetery, and there was talk about how it might fill up.
To stop that from happening, Mayor Frank Curran suggested that people might be buried vertically.
The San Diego Union reported that he wasn’t being facetious.