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City Workers Put Tombstone Issue to Rest

February 23, 1988|CURTIS L. TAYLOR | Times Staff Writer

May they rest in peace.

Almost 300 historic tombstones that once marked the graves of some of San Diego's founding fathers are quietly being put to rest by the city, which has decided to bury them.

The move appears to have ended almost two decades of controversy about where to put the stones.

Two years ago, the tombstones were scheduled to be moved from Mount Hope Cemetery in Southeast San Diego to their original site in Mission Hills.

But late last month, the city manager's office ordered workers to start burying the tombstones in a pit at the Mount Hope site.

"This is not the best solution, but, given the circumstances, it should finalize the issue, " said Wilbur Smith, deputy director of park development for the City of San Diego. "But there will be some that are not satisfied with the outcome."

To preserve the historical significance of the stones, the city plans to use 20 of them to build a pedestal in the cemetery, which is near 38th and Market streets.

The plight of the gravestones dates from the 1940s, when the state passed legislation allowing cities to acquire inactive or inadequately maintained cemeteries for open space.

With the help of the legislation, the city in 1970 removed about 300 gravestones from the deteriorating Calvary Cemetery off Washington Street in Mission Hills and dumped them in a ravine at Mount Hope. (The tombstones were removed but the graves remained. The last burial there was in 1960.)

Responding to demands for more open space, the city then transformed the Mission Hills land into Calvary Pioneer Memorial Park, leaving 147 of the original markers that were deemed of historical significance to San Diego.

The tombstones that were moved to Mount Hope remained there until city officials found them almost three years ago during an examination of a trolley line route.

In January, 1986, with pressure from local politicians and community members who spearheaded a "stones belong with the bones" campaign, a City Council committee voted unanimously to recommend that the markers be returned to Pioneer Park and placed in a suitable memorial.

However, an environmental impact study conducted last year showed it would cost $70,000 to return the stones to the park. And Mission Hills residents who lived nearby expressed strong opposition to the plan, saying they wanted to keep their open space.

Decision Reversed

The council's Public Facilities and Recreation Committee then reversed the earlier council committee decision and voted to bury the tombstones and build the pedestal, said Ron Buckley, a senior planner for the city. Buckley is also a member of the historical site board, which advises the city on the preservation of historically significant buildings and sites. The board had earlier advised the city to move all the gravestones back to their original Mission Hills location.

The city's decision to bury the tombstones without notifying the public has angered some community members.

Lawrence Riveroll, who has been involved with the project for five years, said: "The goal was to put the stones back in Calvary. To have them reverse their mind was kind of off the wall. The city made history by burying those tombstones."

Riveroll said the public should have been told.

"I would have never known about the tombstones being buried if I had not gone to the cemetery to visit my great-grandmother's grave," he said. "I overheard the tractors on the other side of the grave, and when I saw them I almost passed out."

Smith, of the park development department, said the mayor and council members were informed of the plans in a memorandum last year and had plenty of time to make suggestions.

"They knew of our plans well ahead of time," Smith said. "We were not hiding anything."

"Unfortunately and rather unceremoniously, the tombstones were dumped into a ravine," said Buckley, the senior planner. "The families had a chance to come and retrieve them, but in some cases that was not going to happen. Some of them are in six-by-six (-foot) granite chunks. Keep in mind the stones have been in the cemetery for over 20 years."

Cemetery Not Involved

George Stelter, manager of Mount Hope Cemetery, said he considers the whole incident unfortunate.

"Mount Hope Cemetery was not involved in the project," he said. "The work was done under the direction of the city manager's office."

The tombstone memorial will be located in the eastern portion of the cemetery next to Greenwood Memorial Park, Stelter said.

"I don't know who is going to see it. They (the stones) are not easily accessible by road, and you have to walk down to where they are located. They are in an undeveloped area of the cemetery," he said.

Mount Hope is the city's oldest cemetery, established in 1869, and contains the graves of such prominent San Diegans as Alonzo Horton, "the father of new San Diego"; Kate O. Sessions, Balboa Park's landscape expert, and George Marston, who donated Presidio Park to the city.

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