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Union Cemetery is the first and one of the oldest burial grounds in San Mateo County.
First opened in 1859 on a six-acre triangle of land, Union Cemetery is one of the oldest burial grounds in San Mateo County. Located on the north side of Woodside Road and just west of El Camino Real, it was originally a little over one mile outside of downtown Redwood City.
Union Cemetery was founded when Horace Hawes, who owned the land that is now the site of Sequoia High School, would no longer allow people to be buried on his property at Broadway and El Camino. A committee was formed and decided on the current location with the financial assistance of Mr. Hawes. The first burial was in March of 1859. There are plots designated for the Grand Army of the Republic, the Masons, IOOF (the Independent Order of Odd Fellows) and the Improved Order of Red Men. Over the years, Union Cemetery became the final resting place for lumbermen, merchants, shopkeepers and judges, among others. It has officially been closed for burials since 1918, unless a family already owned a plot. For years thereafter however, Redwood City administrators utilized it as a paupers’ field; those unable to afford a burial place were able to inter loved ones here.
Because Union Cemetery had been deeded to the State of California until 1926, no local organization was responsible for its care and upkeep. It fell into disrepair and became overgrown and unsightly. Vandals damaged or removed some burial markers. Many groups, including the San Mateo Historic Association, Redwood City Parks & Rec Dept., the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution), and the Redwood City Council made improvements like fencing and headstone repair. Individuals compiled photographic and written records and sought designation as a historic site from California and the federal government.
Union Cemetery in Redwood City officially opened in 1859.
Very few graveyards existed when Union Cemetery opened on land arranged for by pioneer Horace Hawes (who owned more than 2,000 acres), this one was the first legitimized with official status by both county and the state. Many of the original monuments, placed when Union Cemetery opened in 1859 and in decades thereafter, have been vandalized, broken or lost. Markers, once lovingly fashioned at home out of wood, have long since deteriorated. Some original stones have been carried away to adorn home gardens or for safe keeping. Early visitors to the grounds recalled that one wood marker simply had the word “Chinaman,” scribbled on it. Another just stated: “Unknown man found hanged.” Neither still exist.
A small, faded marble marker, usually unnoticed but prominently located along the cemetery’s main axis, identifies the burial site of four-year-old Annie M. Douglass, the first of approximately 2,400 people buried here. Thirteen bodies (10 children and 3 adults), originally interred on a site owned by Horace Hawes near today’s Sequoia High School, amid considerable public indignation, were exhumed and brought to Union Cemetery for reburial in 1859.
Union Cemetery is a California Historic Landmark
Union Cemetery contains special plots for the Masonic Order, members of the International Order of Odd Fellows, the Improved Order of Red Men and the Californians who fought during the Civil War.
At the east corner of the grounds, in a small grassy plot, atop an eight-foot granite pedestal, is the statue of a Union Army soldier. There are 38 graves of veterans buried here. But while most were veterans of the Civil War, none died in combat. Some survived the war by many decades. All came to California after the war and belonged to the Peninsula Chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic. One, James Peace, not a war veteran, received acclaim in 1846, following the Americanization of California, for raising the first American flag in San Mateo County.
The Grand Army of the Republic was open to honorably discharged members on the Union side. It was created to offer political and personal support to veterans.
Not until 1889 did the Redwood City chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic raise funds for the construction of an appropriate monument to adorn their plot. Mrs. Leland Stanford contributed $1,000 for a life-sized, gun-toting, zinc-cast figure of a Union soldier.
At least in part, that explains why Union Cemetery is a California Historic Landmark and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Click here to see History of How the Cemetery Came to Be
This was placed in the cemetery during Memorial Day observances of 1889. It was toppled and broken in 1958, 1959 and 1969. Each time the statue has been repaired or replaced.
Since 1889, Union Cemetery has been the site of the longest-lived Memorial Day observance on the Peninsula. Sponsored by the Historic Union Cemetery Association, American flags were prominent, a band played, citizens sang and children placed flowers on the graves of veterans.