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IN THE BEGINNING ... After the turn of the twentieth century, Long Beach was among the nation's fastest growing cities. The first burial ground, just to the east of Sunnyside, known as Municipal Cemetery, neared capacity. In 1904, private investors formed the Long Beach Cemetery Association with plans for a new cemetery on the pastoral, gently rolling slopes just south of the city's first fresh water source and pumping station, perfect for the verdantly landscaped cemetery grounds. A creek lined by native willow trees once meandered west to the LA River floodplain. The names of Willow and Spring streets and Willow Springs Park, developed north of the cemetery, reflect these origins.
Sunnyside opened in 1906, with half the purchase price of plots placed in a trust for future care. A June, 1907 Long Beach Press article deemed it "amply large enough to accommodate those passing away in this city for many years." The quiet cemetery served through the ensuing decade's rapid growth, WWI, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919, and became the final resting place for many of Long Beach's earliest movers, shakers, and commoners, their stories forever holding the keys to our city's colorful past.
BLACK GOLD ... The quiet came to an abrupt halt amidst the cacophony of gushers and cries of "Black gold!" following the discovery of oil on Signal Hill, June 23, 2921. Hundreds of oil derricks sprouted, transforming the area into "Porcupine Hill." The city abandoned plans for a massive city park to the north, while speculators' lustful eyes turned to the cemetery's sacred grounds. The struggle between oil and cemetery interested played out in the press and courts; Sunnyside, it seemed, had become the most valuable cemetery in the nation! The courts determined that those who owned plots had the right for burial, but not the oil rights further under the ground. Oil companies did slant drilling for oil under the property. Sunnyside's surroundings changed forever.
DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDREL ... 1987 marked the end of the seven decades with Sunnyside under the care of the Decker Family. When Dean Dempsey, a mortician, purchased it, its endowment had grown to over $1 million. Unfortunately, instead of caring for Sunnyside, Dempsey embezzled half of the funds, lavishing himself and his wife in luxury. The State of California took over in 1994 and the Dempsey's were convicted. The State released the cemetery when local volunteers formed Friends of Sunnyside in 1998, the non-profit that oversees the cemetery today.
THE HERE & NOW ... With over 16,300 resting souls and no plots left to sell, the cemetery relies on interest earned from its diminished endowment. Recession in 2007 severely reduced the interest payments, while the 2007-2009 drought required more costly irrigation water. When drought returned from 2012-2016 reserves depleted rapidly. Today little money is left for water, maintenance, gopher control, repairs and renovations. Many of the stately trees died before winter rains brought relief in 2017. One of only two paid staff, the Cemetery Manager retired in 2018. The City of Long Beach voted in August of 2019 to take over operations of Sunnyside. As of September 2020, transition work is still in progress and not yet final. The cemetery is currently managed by a volunteer Board and office volunteers. The grounds are managed by one part time groundskeeper and Community Volunteers.