Over the years, Pioneer Park has become a popular spot for family picnics, summer concerts and various community events. It is not uncommon to see children from the school next door playing in the grass and families having outings. Take a stroll along the outskirts of the park though you will be in for an awful surprise.
A once prominent pioneer cemetery has now been reduced to a lone row of headstones which are displayed as a memorial for those buried at this park—yes, the bodies are still buried here. You can even find a plaque with the names of the 1800+ bodies whom are interred within, although it is rumored that there may be up to 4,000 bodies buried here.
Pioneer Park, formerly known as Calvary Cemetery, served as a Catholic cemetery for almost a century, with the earliest grave dating back to the 1870’s.
Important families such as the Bandini’s (who once owned the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Old Town) and Couts (who once owned the Rancho Guajoma Adobe) were buried here as well as Roman Catholic Father Antonio Ubach.
The Couts came to San Diego shortly after the Mexican-American War to help map the boundary between the United States and Mexico. He also laid out and named some of the streets in the area of San Diego that is today known as Old Town.
Couts died in 1874 and his wife was buried next to him 24 years later. Father Antonio Ubach had been the parish priest of San Diego for 4 decades of the 19th century.
There are people who had rich and colorful lives buried here. People whose relatives still remember them and visit them. You would hope that our city would have a little more respect, but apparently not.
In fact, in the 70’s, after years of neglect, the headstones were dumped into a ditch and the cemetery was turned into the community park that we know of today. It wasn’t until the early 80’s that anything was done about this issue.
It wasn’t until the trolley was put in that someone observed a headstone in the ditch and all hell broke loose. To mitigate the issue the city hired an historian who determined which stones were of importance.
Those stones were then hauled back to the park and in the row that we see today.
Cemetery layout from the 1940’s superimposed with an aerial view of the current Mission Hills Park by Joe St Lucas
One woman recounts how her and her brother used to play in the ravine, naïve to what they were climbing on. ‘So that’s what they were!’ the woman gasped, obviously horrified when she found out. She and her brother used to climb on the tombs as kids, thinking they were just piles of concrete-type blocks.
There is something so eerie about watching the children play in the grass knowing that thousands of bodies are laying right below them. If the spirit world exists, I can’t imagine this making any of them too happy.
Pioneer Park is a hotspot for ghost hunters who claim that the energy is thick out here–and it is not a happy energy either! See for yourself. Bonus points if you go at night, but please don’t go alone. This area is said to not be the safest after dark.
Old-school work-out bench:
It reads “Dedicated to the memory of those interred within this park”:
Pretty sure remnants of the original wall remain. Keep your eyes peeled!