The Hidden Past of Baker Beach

While construction crews working in ancient cities like Rome or London often uncover unexpected historic finds, this is not common for ‘new’ cities like San Francisco. However, crews constructing the Baker Beach Green Streets in summer of 2019 found evidence of a coffin where it was not supposed to be. 

After immediately stopping work, the team sent for archeologists, who later found more burials dating from the late 1800’s in their construction zone.  Who these people were, how they came to rest at their location, and why the SFPUC was constructing there in the first place is a story that reveals a little-known part of San Francisco’s history.

J.T. Mates-Muchin served as the SFPUC’s Environmental Compliance Manager for the Baker Beach Green Streets Project. The SFPUC constructed a combination of stormwater management features in the Sea Cliff neighborhood to slow rainwater and promote infiltration. These rain gardens and bulb-outs are located near the California Coastal Trail access entrance at 25th Avenue North and near the Lincoln Park Golf Course. Roughly 5,475 square feet of pervious concrete was also installed to help divert stormwater runoff.  These features help reduce the burden on the City’s stormwater system during wet weather. 

Mates-Muchin’s job is to ensure that the SFPUC and its contractors comply with environmental laws.  In an urban setting like San Francisco his job might entail checking that our contractor is not dumping waste into storm drains or generating too much dust. He and his team work closely with the contractor to train them on environmental regulations and, luckily, what to do if they uncover something unexpected. In this case, stop immediately and call in the experts. Once the first burial was discovered, an on-site archaeologist monitored construction and was onsite when additional burials were found. 

Mates-Muchin arranged for archaeologists to carefully preserve and study the remains to piece together who these people were.  Researchers learned that in the early 1900’s San Francisco leaders ordered the reinternment of burials in the cemetery located here in order to construct a new City park. The Park became Lincoln Park Golf Course in 1912, and it was believed all of the burials had been safely reburied at a cemetery in Colma.  Apparently, this was not the case.

Armed with a map of the former cemetery, researchers were able to pinpoint the approximate location of the burials within the previous cemetery. These people were buried in the part of the cemetery belonging to the French Mutual Benevolent Society of San Francisco. Such organizations were common at the time. Founded in 1851, the French Mutual Benevolent Society of San Francisco served the medical and social needs of persons of French origin or descent in the San Francisco Bay Area.  The Society still exists today, however they had no records of these burials that could shed light on their names or place of origin.

Study of the remains and grave goods did show that these people lived a wide range of lifestyles in early San Francisco.  They died of diseases and injuries that are nearly unheard of today because of modern medicine.  Still, people lived full lives, often well into old age. Many individuals were buried with elaborate memorials, or painted and gilded coffins, which shows that they were buried with great care. Mates-Muchin and his team will ensure that they will be given a new resting place in Colma.   The Project Team is currently working with the San Francisco Planning Department and the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department to install an interpretive sign to document and memorialize the cemetery at the site.   

The project team was able to re-sequence their work and work around these finds to minimize any impacts to their schedule. Construction completed during the summer of 2020 and this is just one of eight green infrastructure projects the SFPUC is constructing as part of the Sewer System Improvement Program, a 20-year citywide investment to upgrade our aging sewer infrastructure to ensure a reliable, sustainable and seismically safe sewer system now and for generations to come.