A BRIEF HISTORY OF UNION CEMETERY
Before Union Cemetery
William Cary Jones was leasing property that belonged to Horace Hawes and had allowed 13 burials on the property. This is the site of today’s Sequoia High School. When Mr. Hawes returned to the property, he informed the county that he no longer wanted the dead to be buried there and he wanted all 13 bodies exhumed and moved elsewhere. This caused great anxiety in Redwood City.
After checking on the legality of Mr. Hawes’ demand, they decided that he had the right to make his request and they recommended that a committee be established to find a new cemetery location.
On February 7, 1859 a six acre plot of land was purchased well outside of town on Woodside Road. Mr. Horace Hawes redeemed himself in the eyes of the public when he donated a large part of the purchase price for the property.
Acquiring the Land for Union Cemetery
The Union Cemetery Association was formally established with this stated purpose: “This organization shall be known as the Union Cemetery Association of San Mateo County in the State of California ….. The sole and only object of this Association shall be the purchase, support, and maintenance of a cemetery for the burial of the dead.”
Articles of Incorporation were sent to the State of California because there was no local organization that could legally accept them. Many other communities were having similar problems establishing new cemeteries. The state took possession of Union Cemetery on April 18, 1859.
The Start of the Union Cemetery
By May the cemetery had been established and a report in the Gazette announced, “There are one hundred and ninety-four family lots, all of good size and public ground sufficient for over four hundred graves.”
The process of exhuming and moving the 13 bodies from Hawes’ property to the cemetery began in May. The first to be moved was 4 year old Annie M. Douglass. She was buried on Central Avenue near mid-cemetery. She was joined by her brother Nathan who also died at age 4, but more than 10 years later. Walking down Central Avenue you can easily see the two small markers side by side.
The original entry to Union Cemetery was at the east end near Woodside Road. The wagons proceeded into the cemetery through an open gate that had an arch over it. Roses were planted on each side of the arch and they were bright red in the spring. It was a beautiful entry and the people of Redwood City were proud of their cemetery.
Memorial Day, 1885, and the larger Group plots
The Superintendent’s register showed that there had been 345 interments by 1878 and most were born in California. Also, the designation of specific large lots for several organizations, the largest of which is the Odd Fellows lot at the rear of the cemetery. They also listed the lots for the Grand Army of The Republic, the Masonic Lodge and for the Improved Order of Redmen.
The Grand Army of The Republic received an annual grant of $100 from the county for upkeep of its plot. Certainly GAR was the most visible entity with their annual Memorial Day march from the Congregational Church (which stood on the northwest corner of Middlefield and Jefferson), to the cemetery and members were a colorful lot with all of them wearing company uniforms that they received during the Civil War.
GAR was deeply indebted to Mrs. Leland Stanford for her generous donation of the statue of the soldier which stands upon the towering pedestal that contains the words, “Mustered Out.”
The Cemetery in 1889
By 1889 the GAR triangular lot was 75 feet long, 42 feet wide at the rear and 20 feet wide at the front entrance. The monument had emblems of the four services on each of the sides. The inscription reads: “To the Memory of California’s Patriotic Dead, who served during the War for the Union. Mustered Out.” On the opposite side it read, “Erected by the Grateful People of San Mateo County.”
November of the same year revealed a dramatic increase in the number of monuments in the cemetery. People were placing monuments for recently buried members of families and others were purchasing monuments for themselves or other older family members. At this time people could plant any tree, shrub or flower on the plot that they desired. Fortunately many chose roses which is why we have such a variety of them today.
1923: GAR headstones and James Peace
In June of 1923, the Women’s Relief Corps worked to get proper headstones for the men buried in the GAR plot. It was through their dedicated efforts that the federal government recognized and made the standard headstones we see today in that plot. It should be noted that James Peace is also buried in the GAR plot. He is an exception as he was never a soldier, but considered to be the first person to raise the American Flag in San Mateo County. Needless to say he probably was also a good friend and drinking buddy of a number of the men buried in the plot.
Potter’s Field and Woodside Road
A new policy established long before 1945 called for the development of a potter’s field, an area for the burial of the indigent and poor. The area in question was next to the hedge alongside Woodside Road, just two lanes at that time. It wasn’t until the mid 1960s that the road was widened to four lanes. The state highway department simply removed the hedge and graded and paved a second lane on each side, expanding the existing road by about 15 feet with the new shoulder included.
A California State Landmark and The National Register of Historic Places
In 1945, a city ordinance made it illegal to bury people except in plots already owned by the family of the deceased. All further burials were prohibited. The ordinance provided for a $300 fine or imprisonment in the county jail for ninety days as a threat for violating the ordinance.
This ordinance, among other things, was instrumental in forming the application for California State Landmark status. No cemetery had ever been given this honor but Union Cemetery history was so vivid that the State Office of Historic Preservation felt it deserved the status. Union Cemetery was given California State Landmark #816. On March 26, 1963, Redwood City Council passed Resolution 3667 accepting the deed for Union Cemetery from the State of California which had been given to the state in 1859.
In 1975, the Archives Committee of the library incorporated and then began work to get the Cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places. Jean Cloud, chairwoman of the archives committee, and Nita Spangler, along with several other members, began this challenging project.
The condition of the cemetery was appalling and the task before the board was daunting. However the board was able to raise enough money to pay V. Fontana and Sons, of Colma, to come down and fix 6 monuments for which the board had salvaged all the parts. The restoration company was so impressed with the project that it did twice as many monuments as the board had planned. This was such a great improvement that Fontana was invited two more times.
Money was donated to repair the Soldier Statue because it had been damaged in 1969. It took several months for a foundry to complete the task but when the statue was finished and erected it on the pedestal the event spawned a joyous celebration.
The cemetery has been greatly improved by Boy Scouts working on their Eagle Scout Award. The first Scout worked on the Cooley-Frisbie plot fence that had been knocked to the ground and had to be completely rebuilt. The two lawns, the paths and a number of fences have been finished and a bench has also been done by Scouts. One group built the monument in the front of the cemetery that holds the California State Landmark Plaque.