By Thomas K. Pendergast
The Lincoln Park Golf Course is among the oldest in the western states, but it also has a unique historical legacy, the evidence for which lies underneath it with perhaps 20,000 buried human remains.
Recently the SF Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution asking the SF Planning Department and Historic Preservation Committee to give the park landmark status.
Before the golf course existed, the area was filled with grass-covered graves of those who helped build San Francisco.
Between 1870 and 1909, it was officially called City Cemetery. Above the ground, two monuments still on the course recall this bygone era and the final resting place of those who lived in it.
They came from all over the world and one of the largest groups among them was Chinese, estimated to make up about half the total.
“It is my hope that this landmark designation will help us remember the blood and tears that our ancestors shed as part of the power that has built San Francisco into the great city it is today,” said District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan, who is herself an immigrant.
Along a fairway on the course, one monument is still standing. The Kong Chow Funerary Temple was used to temporarily store the bodies of Chinese immigrants before they were sent back home to China. Later they would be disinterred by a “bone collector” who would prepare the remains to be transported back to their home villages.
Chan said a burial in the Chinese section of City Cemetery was an occasion for religious rites that included prayer, the burning of incense, food offerings of roast pig and the burning of symbolic paper money and clothes for the deceased’s journey into the afterlife. The funerary monument in Lincoln Park is the last remaining structure designated to hold these ceremonies.
On another fairway is a monument to sailors buried there as well.
The land was reclassified as a municipal park in 1909 and the associated benevolent societies were given six months to find the remains of their buried dead, which occurred in a “scattered and disorganized fashion” throughout the time allotted, according to Chan, with removals done as late as 1916.
It remains unclear which societies removed their dead and how many burials were removed because no records or deeds about the cemetery have survived.
Historian Woody LaBounty of San Francisco Heritage said the cemetery was also used for the indigent dead, who were buried at the county’s expense.
Sections of the grounds were granted for various ethnic benevolent and fraternal organizations, including Chinese, German, Japanese, Italian, French, Scandinavian, African American, Greek and Scottish areas, as well as Union Civil War veterans and merchant seamen.
“The City and county did not feel it was necessary to move the thousands of bodies the county itself had buried over the years, deciding to leave these individuals under the ground at the new park,” LaBounty said. “Mostly economically disadvantaged, these people, still there, never had more than a simple wooden cross as a marker. And although there were objections, the ruling attitude was reflected in newspaper headlines, like ‘The Dead Must Not be Permitted to Injure the Living.’
“Remains often come to light through natural processes and infrastructure work. Notably, some 900 bodies were uncovered during the 1993 and 1994 renovation of the California Legion of Honor Museum,” he said.
District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar stressed the significance of the new designation to the history of the area.
“This is just another example of the incredibly important effort to really recognize and lift up the rich heritage of the Chinese community and, in this case, many different ethnic communities in our city, as well as other communities, especially on the west side of the City,” Mar said.
Larry Yee, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, also highlighted the significance of the resolution and vowed that the course will not be in jeopardy.
“This place has been a resting place for our earlier immigrants …. Many of them did not go home and they made America their home,” Yee said. “And they buried their bones here, in America. I just want to say to the golfers as you make this an historical landmark, this park will stay as it is. It will not be transformed to anything other than a golf course, as it currently is.
“This is a special place for us. This is where our ancestors are laid to rest. Please do not disturb our ancestors,” Yee said.
But some of the golfers who use the course voiced opposition because of concerns about possible limitations on what can be done to it in the future due to the landmark status.
“I was part of the effort … which obtained the signatures of over 150 Lincoln Park golfers who expressed their concerns about this initiative,” said Grant Ingram, a District 1 resident who uses the course.
“Many of these golfers were seniors and San Franciscans of Asian heritage. We will not apologize that we have real concerns that this initiative didn’t consider the ongoing survival of the course. What I learned, from speaking with so many people was just how important this golf course is for their health and happiness. It’s a big part of the community,” Ingram said.
“The golf community strongly is in favor of reasonable efforts to commemorate the history of this site,” Ingram said. “But I’m sure that we can find a way to work together to commemorate the site without limiting the ability to operate the Lincoln Park Golf Course.”
“We are concerned that a (landmark designation) applied to the entire park would carry a strong potential to prejudice and limit the use, maintenance, continued improvement, renovation, and/or appropriate remodeling of the golf course, thus prejudicing and limiting the historic golf character and recreational use of the park,” the San Francisco Public Golf Alliance President Richard Harris wrote in a letter to the Board.
“As a formal cultural landscape, constructed for recreational purpose, the golf course is a ‘structure’ that must be maintainable and adaptable to meet changing times and conditions. And for that reason we are not now inclined to support a (landmark designation),” Harris wrote.
Allison Vanderslice of the SF Planning Department said the landmark designation won’t make much of a difference because the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) already has a process in place for major changes to the course.
“Ordinary maintenance and repair, as well as other utility work such as irrigation work … other maintenance work would not be impacted (with the landmark designation),” Vanderslice said. “Any major renovations would need to go through an environmental review under the CEQA, areas with human remains would have to have them removed and reburied, all of which is already required without the landmark designation.”
Mary Anne Ahtye said she is the great, great granddaughter of Yee Ahtye, an immigrant from China who worked as a translator for Chinese railroad workers and miners, and a businessman who purchased the land and then donated it to the City.
“This land is sacred, hallowed ground, as no one knows how many Chinese and other ethnic and immigrant community members remain in the Lincoln Park cemetery,” Ahtye said. “I would also like to suggest that a budget allows that signage be erected designating the landmark so that visitors will know where it is located. We owe it to our many Chinese foremothers and fathers who still remain here, the great respect due to them and to keep this land forever honored by making it a sanctuary for ancestor worship. And may those golf balls miss hitting the Kong Chow temple.”