Death of a Cemetery

The True Story of the Buena Vista Cemetery in South Oceanside

Editor’s Note (October 1, 2020): Since I last wrote and posted this story in June of 2019, I have found three additional people who were buried in the Buena Vista Cemetery. While going through various newspapers, I discovered that brothers Percy and Albert Laughlin, died in 1888 and 1895, respectively. Their obituaries published in Kansas newspapers indicate they were buried at South Oceanside. In addition, the Escondido newspaper reported that John Goss died in 1908 and was buried at Buena Vista Cemetery (and even at that time reported that sorry state of the cemetery…just 20 years after it was established). I have included these three persons to the burial count, which sadly adds to the number of remains likely still buried at this site.

History of the Buena Vista Cemetery

On Saturday, January 24, 1970, workmen began the task of removing graves from the Buena Vista Cemetery in South Oceanside. It took six hours to locate and remove 17 remains of the dead on the 2 acre site who had been buried there between 1888 and about 1916. The unidentified remains were removed to El Camino Memorial Park in Sorrento Valley.

The cemetery had been neglected for several decades. It was privately owned, not associated with any church or organization. Thus, there was no “perpetual care”. There was no official burial list or caretaker. Over the years, headstones had been likely stolen, wooden crosses removed, and memories faded as to who was buried there, and the cemetery became an overgrown field with a handful of toppled headstones.

Despite the neglect, most of the people interred at Buena Vista Cemetery, had families that attended their funerals, mourned their passing, and placed markers on their final resting place, whether wooden or stone. They were just not nameless, unfortunate souls who died alone. The dead were laid to rest in a peaceful, picturesque cemetery, overlooking the Buena Vista Lagoon, which also provided expansive views of the Pacific Ocean. Lanes within the graveyard bore the names of trees and flowers: Fir, Oak,Yucca, Palm, Ivy, Lilac, Pansy, Rose and Violet.

The Buena Vista Cemetery was located in South Oceanside, a separate township of its own between Oceanside and Carlsbad. It was established by John Chauncey Hayes, who was also heavily intertwined with the establishment of the City of Oceanside. Hayes became the exclusive real estate agent for Andrew Jackson Myers, Oceanside’s founder, and he also served as Justice of the Peace and postmaster.

Hayes began to develop his new township of South Oceanside which included a train depot, hotel and its own newspaper, The South Oceanside Diamond, of which Hayes was the editor.

Hayes hired Edward Dexter, a local engineer, to lay out the cemetery for him, which contained 106 burial plots. The earliest map of the cemetery gives credit to Dexter and is dated February 1888. However the cemetery was not officially recorded until 1893.

The cemetery was located along Wall Street, which is now called Vista Way. At the time Hayes established the cemetery, there was no other burial ground for area residents, including Carlsbad, Oceanside and even Vista. The closest cemetery would be that of the Mission San Luis Rey, for Catholics; or a small public graveyard called the San Luis Rey Cemetery (known now as the Pioneer Cemetery). Both of these burial grounds were at least four miles away from downtown Oceanside and were likely considered inconvenient for coastal residents.

It did not take long for the new cemetery to be utilized. Sarah Perry was likely one of the first persons to be buried at Buena Vista. She died of dropsy of the heart, an old fashioned term for congestive heart failure, at the age of 50 on March 27, 1888.

In June of that year, a Mr. P. Morton, a railroad laborer, died and was buried there. Ione Layne and her infant daughter Edith died tragically and were buried there in 1888 as well.

George Bronson, who was buried elsewhere, and had died in 1885, was moved to Buena Vista Cemetery by his wife Mary in December of 1888. She had a monument maker from San Diego place a new headstone for her husband.

Headstone of George Bronson, moved from the Buena Vista Cemetery to the Oceanview Cemetery

Charles C. Wilson was also buried at Buena Vista. He was the first Oceanside law officer to die in the line of duty in 1889. Wilson was gunned down on the streets of Oceanside by John Murray, a nephew of San Luis Rey pioneer Benjamin F. Hubbert. The City of Oceanside, set to celebrate the 4th of July, instead gathered to mourn the loss of their marshal.

Five children, all died in 1893 and were buried at the cemetery: Zoe Holman, her sibling, Johnnie Hunting, Lois Hunting and Henry Irwin.

Between 1888 and 1900, at least 37 persons were buried at Buena Vista Cemetery, and it is believed that 50 (or more) people were buried at there, evidenced by death certificates, remaining headstones and published obituaries through 1916. Notable pioneers include John Henry Myers, the brother of Oceanside’s founder Andrew Jackson Myers, and members of the Weitzel, Frazee families.

The last known burial was in 1916. Meta Spaulding was just ten days old when she died on December 31, 1916. She had been adopted by the Warren Spaulding family, owners of a dairy in South Oceanside. Irma Spaulding Ratcliff said that she remembered walking to the cemetery as a little girl after the funeral for Meta’s burial.

Burials were probably discontinued due to a new and much closer cemetery in Oceanside, the I.O.O.F. Cemetery (now known as Oceanview Cemetery) that was established in 1894.

In 1929 Wall Street (aka Vista Way)was being widened, which necessitated the removal of several of the buried. It is unknown if there were any protests from family members but the cemetery by that time was considered “abandoned”. Eight remains of the dead were disinterred and removed to the I.O.O.F. Cemetery, (aka the Oceanview Cemetery) on Hill Street (Coast Highway). They included George Bronson (his second reburial), little Meta Spaulding, India D. Goetz, siblings Johnnie and Lois Hunting, Fred T. Walker, and James McCrea. The Weitzel family moved the bodies of their loved ones, Laura and Dr. Martin Weitzel, to Mt. Hope Cemetery in San Diego. Ida Squires was moved to the San Marcos Cemetery.

The Frazee family removed their family member, Don. Blair Frazee to the I.O.O.F Cemetery on Hill Street. The Oceanside Blade newspaper reported the unusual circumstances regarding his disinterment with the headline: Body of Early Pioneer in Perfect Condition. It went on to say: In a state of almost perfect preservation, apparently from some mineral component of the soil, the body of Don Frazee, early Oceanside pioneer, has been exhumed after having been interred over 30 years, the casket and the clothing showing almost no signs of decay and a flower held in the hand of the dead man even retaining much of its color. The body was taken from its original resting place in the South Oceanside cemetery which is being abandoned in the course of street improvement work in the Tolle tract, on the east side of which the old cemetery was located, and was the first burial place after the settlement of Oceanside and Carlsbad.

With 50 known burials, and eleven known removals in 1929, that would have left a total of 39 remaining at the Buena Vista Cemetery, an important number to consider.

If the cemetery was abandoned by 1929, it is unknown how long Hayes owned the property. The land on which the cemetery was located was eventually sold to Carlsbad resident Harold Baumgartner. He sold the property in 1958/59 to an Oceanside school teacher, Beth Harris French, who acquired the Buena Vista Cemetery along with another portion of land to “preserve her view” of the lagoon from her home at 2020 Stewart Street.

While French was left wondering who was responsible for the care of the cemetery, she attempted to find an organization to take over the care and upkeep. Perhaps once a year, an occasional youth group or Boy Scout troop would tend to the headstones, at which time totaled twenty. Despite her concern, French asked the city to rezone her property and then sold it to a developer, who then petitioned the City of Oceanside to rezone the property for commercial use.

A clean up of the cemetery in 1968 shows several of the headstones

At the time James Swartz, of Encino, argued that the number of dead remaining in this abandoned cemetery was just nine. When asked by City officials what would happen if there were more than eleven remaining, Swartz said that if there were as many as forty or people buried there, he would abandon the project. (There may have been as many as 39 remaining burials as previously noted.)

A few dozen local residents signed letters of protests, most of which were residents of South Oceanside and not related to the buried. Some attempt was made to find descendants of the dead but it appears none came forward.

A lot of misinformation was floated around. Some people insisted that there just three people buried (despite over a dozen headstones); others suggested that the people buried all died in a plane crash (quite impossible as most people buried there died before the Wright Brothers historic flight in 1903).

Ultimately the decision was made to allow development of the property and to disinter the bodies, the cost of which was borne by the developer.

When excavation began, seventeen remains were discovered, not eleven as Swartz claimed. It turns out that Swartz may have simply counted the existing headstones, and did not consider there were more people than markers. The remaining headstones did not make their way to El Camino Memorial Park with the disinterred remains.They had been moved and no longer coincided with the proper burial location. Instead the grave markers were used as fill and are ‘buried’ under the on ramp to Highway 78, just east of the cemetery location. Perhaps one day they will be discovered by a Caltrans crew who will have no idea as to their origin or rightful place.

It is well within reason to assume that as many as 39 set of remains were still buried at the cemetery before the project began. If 17 sets of remains were removed at the developer’s cost, that may have left 22 behind (or more).

Grading began on the property to ready it for development. Soon after which, several remains, unceremoniously left behind, were discovered. This was confirmed by two reputable people. One such account was from Manny Mancillas, who worked for North County Soils Testing Laboratory in Escondido in 1969. His company was hired by an oil company, as a service station was to be built on the eastern portion of the former burial site, and the western half a restaurant, The Hungry Hunter.

Mancillas remembered that the gravestones had been gathered in a pile before they were used as fill on the I-5 offramp. He noted that some of headstones were “beautiful” and some were about four feet high.

After a couple of days on the job site, the front loader hit remains of one or two coffins. According to Mancillas, the City was called and an employee from the Engineering Department came out with a burlap bag and took the bones. The crew was told to continue their work. This “transaction” happened at least one other time, when an additional grave was discovered. And as digging continued, outlines of other coffins appeared.

One particular coffin the crew uncovered had a lead glass top, revealing a body of a woman with red hair in almost perfect condition. Her coffin was found near Vista Way towards the entrance of the present day Hunter Restaurant. He said that she was dressed in attire from the late 1800’s; a black buttoned dress with a high white collar. This mirrors the disinterment of Don Frazee in 1929, who was found “preserved.”

Work stopped after the discovery of the woman and the men were unnerved. The men were afraid she would be taken away in a burlap bag and not given a proper burial, so they made the decision to use the front loader to rebury her. Her discovery was kept secret and she was quietly buried down the slope of the lagoon. The construction crew felt that re-interment in the slope was a more decent and dignified burial for the “Lady in Black.”

Aerial of property containing restaurant and current bike shop

Mancillas said that at least six bodies were found during the time he was on site. Bill Hitt, who worked for K L Redfern out of Orange County, did the excavating for the gas station and his memories are similar to that of Mancillas, although Hitt felt more than six remains were found after the official removal; he remembered as many as 12.

Depending upon which numbers are used, that would still leave either 10 or 16 possible remains left at the cemetery.

While some might scoff at the idea that any other bodies or remains were left behind,consider this: In October of 1991, Texaco was on site of the former service station (now a bike shop) perhaps doing soils testing and they discovered an additional five sets of remains. There was no way to identify them, and the company paid to have them removed to Eternal Hills Memorial Park in Oceanside.

Even with the removal of 5 additional remains in 1991, there are likely still remains at the site to this day, perhaps 5 or as many as 11.

There are some who believe the Hunter Restaurant is now haunted. Whether you believe in spirits or not, it is still an unsettling situation.

With the removal of Buena Vista Cemetery, Oceanside lost a part of its history. When those early pioneer families laid their loved ones to rest they never could have imagined they would suffer such indignities.

In the 1990’s the Oceanside Historical Society placed a granite marker on the sidewalk on Vista Way in front of the Hunter Restaurant, listing the known persons that were buried there at the time. (The plaque does not include persons found with additional research in recent years). It stands as the only reminder of the Buena Vista Cemetery and the pioneers buried there.

Kristi S. Hawthorne, historiesandmysteries.blog “Death of a Cemetery”, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express consent and written permission from the author and owner is strictly prohibited. Links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author Kristi S. Hawthorne and historiesandmysteries.blog “Death of a Cemetery”, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.