San Francisco’s corpse roads – Mission Local

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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.