Pioneer Park May Haunt You – at Least with its Stories

Posted: October 19th, 2009 | Mission Hills | 4 Comments


By Priscilla Lister

pioneer park Pioneer Park in Mission Hills is the perfect spot for a Halloween wander — if you dare.

It once was the site of the Calvary Cemetery, a Catholic burial ground where some 4,000 bodies were laid to rest from about 1876 to 1960.

The only evidence of the graveyard that remains today are nearly 150 tombstones that were saved and placed in the park’s southeast corner. There is also a bronze memorial that lists many of the people buried there.

When a new Catholic cemetery, Holy Cross, opened in 1919, Calvary Cemetery fell into disrepair and burials there were rare. The last one was in 1960.

By 1970, the city took over the site and transformed it into Pioneer Park, removing most of the headstones and “storing” them in a ravine at Mount Hope Cemetery, where they are today.

But most of the bodies remain interred under the lovely grassy expanse of Pioneer Park.

“There was supposedly a woman (ghost) who would rise up and walk around there,” Valerie Goodpaster told a group of Grant Elementary school kids who did an impressive research project on Pioneer Park in 2005 (go to to read what they discovered, and even listen to a few oral histories from people, like Goodpaster, who grew up in Mission Hills).

“I get the creepiest feelings when I go there,” said Sally Richards, founder of Ghosts Happen, a local group that investigates paranormal activity throughout San Diego County. “Over by the tombstones, I feel like I’m being watched.”

She said her electromagnetic field readers, a paranormal investigative device, “go off the charts there. And one of our people did get a photo of something walking through,” she added. Go to the group’s Web site,, to view photos, seeking one by Charles of Pioneer Park.

“I definitely feel that if I were buried there and my grave was destroyed, I’d be haunting the place,” said Richards. “At one time it was a beautiful graveyard, and now it’s a beautiful park, a really friendly place during the day with people having a good time. But when the sun goes down, there’s a different feeling to it.”

Indeed, it is a lovely place during the day. The students at Grant Elementary right next door use it for physical education activities. It’s a neighborhood favorite for picnics and dog walks. There are eucalyptus trees as well as some lovely California peppers, ficus and Chinese flame trees. Some of the huge old trees have surely been there since the cemetery days.

But it’s the stories of the people buried there that still fascinate.

Marna Clemons, a professional genealogist and president of the San Diego Genealogy Society, spent more than two years full-time researching Calvary Cemetery.

She was doing some research for her sister-in-law when she came upon a Bible on eBay that belonged to the John Stewart/Rosa Machado family — whose 1830s adobe home is today part of Old Town State Historic Park. While it wasn’t related to the research she was doing for her sister-in-law, she thought it held a lot of San Diego history, so she put together family information to give to the San Diego Historical Society.

“One thing led to another, which led me to learn about the history of Calvary Cemetery,” said Clemons. “There was no complete record of who was buried there. I had the time, I started researching, and it led to a Web site.” Her Web site,, is an invaluable resource for information on the historic cemetery.

Lots of early city leaders were buried there, including John (Jack) Stewart, buried in 1892, and his wife, Rosa Machado, buried in 1898. Stewart, who lived to be 83, had been a shipmate of Richard Henry Dana, well-known author of “Two Years Before the Mast,” had fought in the battle of San Pasqual, and was active in other early incidents connected with this region, according to his 1892 obituary in the San Diego Union, which is linked on Clemons’ Web site.

Cave Johnson Couts, who was ultimately one of the wealthiest men in Southern California through his Rancho Guajome near Oceanside (now a historic site), was originally buried in the Old Town Cemetery in 1874 but was later moved to Calvary Cemetery. Couts had graduated from West Point Academy with Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in 1843 and served during the Mexican War. He married Ysidora Bandini.

Ysidora Bandini was buried beside her father, Don Juan Bandini, who had been married to Maria de los Dolores Estudillo, member of another prominent Old Town family.

Father Antonio Ubach presided over Ysidora Bandini’s funeral, according to an 1897 San Diego Union obituary about the “impressive services over the remains of a pioneer,” again linked through Clemons’ Web site.

Father Ubach was also buried in Calvary Cemetery. A priest in Old Town for 23 years beginning in 1860, he was called the “Last Padre.”

“There were a lot of children buried there, several murders, drownings and many gruesome deaths involved trains, trolleys and horses,” said Clemons. She has even transcribed several letters between Charles Gooch and his wife Julia, written during the Civil War.

Many of these murder and accident cases were documented in the local newspaper at the time, and are linked on her Web site. Go to the “Stories to Tell” section and click on highlighted names. Or search the database alphabet for names of people buried there and click to see if they have a story to share from the old days.

You’ll probably get caught up searching for all kinds of stories, which just might help you if you greet any of the players in Pioneer Park at night.

GETTING THERE: In Mission Hills, go to the south end of Randolph Street where it stops at Washington Place. Park anywhere along the street at the park.


  1. Priscilla, great article–brings back so many memories–when I lived in the neighborhood twenty years ago I used to visit Pioneer Park almost daily — especially at night, walking my little dog. Even though (or because?) I knew there were hundreds of graves under the grass, I always felt very safe, protected and comfortable even by myself, late and by the light of the moon.

  2. On my tours I take people to Pioneer Park and I will show you where the Spirits are grounded.

  3. […] win the main race. Afterwards, we headed out for a late night ride through North Park, ending up at Pioneer Park. Appropriate for Halloween, it started out as the first cemetery in town, but is now used as a park […]

  4. Andre says:

    I was a student and part time school bus driver. Grant Elementery was one of my route. Discovered Calvary in 1998, and was very intrigued. That year I researched much of what you’ve shared, and even wrote an article, unpublished, while at SDSU, in the journalism program. I often felt a chilling energy near that corner of stones.

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