Historical Blog Series: Union Cemetery

Union Cemetery serves as a permanent archive of San Mateo County’s history. Recorded on stone are the rich and colorful lives of many pioneer families – including more than 40 Civil War veterans who are buried in the old soldiers’ plot established by the Grand Army of the Republic. Some of the early pioneers buried in Union Cemetery include Judge Benjamin Fox, Lester P. Cooley and Andrew Teague.

Before Union Cemetery

Before the creation of Union Cemetery William Cary Jones had allowed 13 burials on his property, the site of today's Sequoia High School. When Horace Hawes took over the property, he no longer wanted the dead to be buried there and wanted all 13 bodies exhumed and moved elsewhere. This caused great distress in Redwood City.

As Redwood City began to grow into a community it was evident that a cemetery was a necessity. In 1859, before the Civil War, a “Union Cemetery Association” was formed and land was purchased. The Union Cemetery Association was the first of its kind in California, and their experience still influences similar associations today.

In February 1859 Charles N. Fox, James W. Turner and John Vinton Diller of the Union Cemetery Association worked to find a suitable location for the cemetery. They locateda six-acre plot of land was located on Woodside Road and made a purchase agreement with owners Baird and Berry.

Hawes redeemed himself in the eyes of the community when he donated a large sum to purchase the property.

The Start of the Union Cemetery

By May 1859 the cemetery was established with 194 family lots and public ground sufficient for over 400 graves. The 13 bodies from Hawes’ property were then moved to their final resting place.

Visitors to the cemetery today will find a variety of the city’s early residents – lumbermen, shipbuilders, judges, lawyers, tradesmen, county officials, tannery workers, hotel keepers, and many women and children –buried here. The first burial was Anna Douglas, age 4, in May 1859, who was buried on Central Avenue around the middle of the 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.

Union Cemetery Today

The Union Cemetery Association became inactive in 1918 and years of neglect set in. “Perpetual Care” was an innovation at that time and was offered in newer cemeteries. However, the cemetery was used by local undertakers, especially during the Great Depression. In spite of the neglect and vandalism there was a great love in the community for Union Cemetery. Volunteers now devote time and effort into preserving this interesting historic property.

Today Union Cemetery is overseen by the Historic Union Cemetery Association. This non-profit corporation was formed in March 1993 to promote the preservation, restoration, and maintenance of the Union Cemetery Historic Site.

A California State Landmark and the National Register of Historic Places

In 1945, Mary Cereghino, a newspaper reporter, compiled an unofficial history of the cemetery. During that same year Dr. Frank Stanger, with Mrs. Cereghino’s paper in hand, wrote his own history of Union Cemetery. The work done by Cereghino and Stanger was instrumental in forming the application for California State Landmark status. No cemetery had ever been given this honor but Union Cemetery’s history was so vivid it earned the California State Landmark #816 designation in 1967.

In 1975, the Archives Committee of the Redwood City Library incorporated and 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, succeeding in in 1983.

To learn more about Union Cemetery go here.