Colma, California is a two-square-mile town nestled within the San Francisco Peninsula, sitting just outside the expansive city of San Francisco. It is a little different looking when compared to its neighboring metropolis, with its small flow of flat land that seems to not have nearly anything happening—the key word being “seems.”
Colma only has about 1,800 residents, a car dealership, and two shopping centers. But if you get the chance, you should visit this town, as you’ll certainly notice a little more.
Cemeteries are everywhere in Colma. It’d appear that every major street seems to have a connecting burial ground. And that’s no exaggeration. The last count brought Colma’s number of graveyards to 17, with an estimated 1.5 million corpses six feet under, all buried within the last century. It seems almost impossible that this tiny Bay Area town could have this many dead just below the microscopic number of living. But it does.
The peaceful town of Colma, California is known as “The City of Souls.” In order to better understand how Colma’s living residents got outnumbered by the dead 1000 to 1, it’s important to dig up some of San Francisco’s early history as well.
Spanish missionaries founded San Francisco and established it as a small mission, helping to link the other missions on the El Camino Real Trail. San Francisco didn’t really grow until 1848 when Mexico ceded California to the United States, and gold was discovered in the Sacramento River, kickstarting the Gold Rush.
Within the year, tens of thousands of Americans from the East Coast and Irish refugees fleeing the famine flocked to the West, and most of them settled throughout San Francisco to find their future riches.
Although many settlers and immigrants never found gold, all the other opportunities San Francisco had to offer enticed many of them to stay.
By the 1860s, San Francisco’s population tripled, and then tripled a second time before 1900. The small city had turned into a slum state, overcrowded and filthy. San Francisco was a ticking time bomb of catastrophe.
Tick, tick, BOOM
When that time bomb went off, it hit San Francisco hard. Four major disasters hit the city within one generation. It was those tragedies that set the path for Colma to become the city of the dead.
Still incredibly unhygienic, bubonic plague broke out in San Francisco in 1900. The city’s unhelpful response to the epidemic was to outlaw any new burials of those who succumbed to the sickness within the city. Instead, many of the perished were laid to rest outside the city, in places such as Oakland and Marin County, which was very expensive to do. Others buried their dead in their own backyards, which was very illegal. Still, with little money and a lot of dead bodies, the living kept burying the victims throughout the city.
In 1906, as the plague seemed to be coming to an end, the infamous earthquake struck San Francisco. Back then, the city didn’t have much reason to consider earthquakes an issue and didn’t take the necessary precautions when building the city. It’s because of this that the earthquake was so destructive and disastrous.
The third disaster immediately followed the earthquake. Virtually the entire city caught fire and brought San Francisco to ashes. Approximately 3,000 people died directly and indirectly from the earthquake and fires.
The Spanish flu struck the world, including San Francisco, just 12 years later. Thousands of San Franciscans died.
Despite all of this, San Francisco continued to rebuild and adapt to the changing world. The destruction of the city brought new opportunities to erect newer and better buildings and structures. Real estate and property began to be in-demand—but that also brought about another issue.
San Francisco sits on the northern tip of a peninsula, with seawater surrounding it on three sides. The limited land meant that instead of the city expanding outward, it had to grow within the city limits. As space became scarce, real estate prices began to soar.
Naturally, people died and had to be buried. But with the prices of land climbing and even more space being taken up, it didn’t seem logical to keep plots of perfectly buildable land empty for the dead. The city started looking for other places for the dead to call home.
A new home for the dead
That’s when the town Cow Hollow was found. The small town was just south of San Francisco’s Mission District. Between 150–300 people lived there in 1900. The rest of the underdeveloped town was made up of trees.
San Francisco funeral parlors seized the opportunity and began buying land and digging new graves. However, what really got the city motivated on moving its already-buried dead to Cow Hollow happened in 1912. Rumors began circulating all around the city that it was because of its multiple graveyards that sickness and disease were spreading.
The rumors stuck, and the residents soon were convinced that the dozen or so cemeteries left inside the city were spewing some unknown miasma into the air and making people sick. And it may or may not be a coincidence that this rumor popped up right around the time real estate developers were preying on some of the last open spaces in San Francisco.
In 1912, the city began to plan how to permanently move tens of thousands of human remains to the town now called Colma. But because of city politics, red tape, and the slow reputation of bureaucrats, the massive project didn’t really get started for years.
By the 1920s, Cow Hollow had achieved its new name of Colma and became a part of San Mateo County. The city still had less than 1,000 living residents and practically all of them worked in the funeral industry, naturally. By 1930, a steady flow of recently deceased San Franciscans were making their final resting place in Colma.
Bureaucrats and war
World War II brought even more radical change in not only San Francisco but also the whole Bay Area. Fear struck after Pearl Harbor, and naval bases were deemed unsafe; this shifted the war efforts further inland. Even after the shift, the war created an enormous job boom, and the population of San Francisco grew again.
After the war, the job boom that turned into a population boom equaled yet another real estate boom. Housing prices were higher than ever in the city, and people needed to buy land. This fact meant that the few remaining cemeteries and graveyards were about to be dug up again.
Cemeteries that hadn’t seen a new resident in 40 years were dug up and torn down. Save for a religious cemetery at Mission Dolores Church and a military burial ground at the Presidio, all of the city’s graveyards were closed and dug up.
Exhuming the burial sites took a whole lot of work and time. There were an estimated 150,000 decaying graves that had to be removed, and each and every cemetery had to be checked and certified empty before any construction could take place.
Because there were so many hoops to jump through and the city’s 14 mostly out-of-work mortuaries did not have enough money to do their job, historians believe that the city’s mortuaries cut corners, meaning they skipped over a lot of graves and probably didn’t look too hard for lost ones. The headstones were torn from the earth, and many were, ironically, ground up and used in construction. The others were just dumped in the Bay, and the unearthed piles of dirt that supposedly contained human remains, or so the companies claimed, were taken to mass burial pits in Colma.
Some very well-known people have made this small town their final resting place. Wyatt Earp, a legendary western sheriff, and his wife are buried in Colma, as well as Levi Strauss, inventor of Levi’s denim jeans, and the famous railroad-accident survivor, Phineas Gage. The body of Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, was moved in 1934.
The present astronomical housing and land prices in San Francisco have only increased the population of the dead in Colma. At least most of Colma’s population now works outside the funeral industry. However, 78% of the land area and a whopping 99.9% of The City of Souls population is dead. And it’s only predicted to grow.