Discovering our maritime history at the San Mateo County History Museum

Curator Dana Neitzel helps install a protective cover over one of the many model ships on display in the newly renovated Charles Parsons’ Ships of the World exhibit at the county historical museum. The exhibit uses the existing model collection to tell the county’ s maritime history.

A longtime maritime exhibit at the county’s history museum is a little more shipshape.

Building on the Charles Parsons’ Ships of the World exhibit of 24 painstakingly handcrafted models, the San Mateo County History Museum is ready to tell the story of local history on its waters.

Ship building in South San Francisco during World War II and scow schooners like the Regina “S” that transported goods in the Bay will get their rightful due. So will the ships of discovery like the San Carlos, the first ship to sail into San Francisco Bay. And a nod to the 80 shipwrecks that happened between 1851 and 1930 in the waters off the coast — no real surprise considering the dangerous fog and rocks greeting vessels trying to find their way into the Bay, said Mitch Postel, president of the history museum.

Some artifacts recovered from these watery resting places like opium pipes and porcelain will be on display beginning Sunday, March 16 when the museum reopens the exhibit with Maritime Day, an afternoon of crafts, songs and hands-on displays that let visitors try out a pulley system and climb inside the dingy, El Toro, for a photo. Specially commissioned murals painted by Burlingame artist Fred Sinclair will also offer another glimpse into how the ships may have looked and traveled centuries ago.

The previous exhibit was beautiful but didn’t really offer a cohesive and chronological explanation to visitors of what the ships really were and in some cases their connection to the area, Deputy Director Carmen Blair said during a tour of the gallery as it was under construction.

“People would ask about the history,” Blair said. “What is this? What does this have to do with San Mateo County?”

In its revamped form winding through four different themes — shipwrecks, warships, working ships and ships of discovery — many of the model ships were chosen for display inside and will be joined by a four-minute video about the history and current activities at the Port of Redwood City. Visitors will encounter the video and other models in the hallway outside the gallery as a bit of a teaser before stepping inside to see models like the Golden Hind of 1577, Sir Francis Drake’s English galleon that sailed up the California coast, and Stockholm, a Swedish royal warship from 1628. Rounding out the gallery corners is the former lens from the Point Montara lighthouse, retired when it became automated, informational kiosks and an actual 150-year-old cannon.

Each model ship has a placard offering a bit of its history and the scale to which it was built.

The renovations are courtesy of a grant from the Christensen Family Foundation.

The majority of county residents probably aren’t well-versed in its local maritime history, said Postel, who discovered along with his staff new bits of trivia while putting the exhibit together.

Postel puzzled over five docks jutting like fingers into the Bay near San Francisco International Airport. Were they some type of runway? They were actually concrete barges used to haul cargo for the Navy and remnants of the Blair Shipyard in South San Francisco that are still visible at the current South San Francisco Water Quality Control Plant.

The reopening of the exhibit is also a nice way to introduce Parsons and his creations to members of the public who might not have experienced it yet, Curator Dana Neitzel said.

Parsons, who died in 2004, moved to the Peninsula after World War II and focused on a lifelong passion for model ship building after his retirement in San Carlos. The details are accurate even inside the models where they might not be easily viewed.

“There is nothing here you could find in a kit,” Postel said.

Many of the models took up to 18 months to build and the original display opened in 2000.

The ships are protected by Plexiglass but the covering also clues museum staff into the USS. The Sullivans being a particular crowd favorite — the fingerprints give it away.

Info box:

If you go, Maritime Day is noon to 3 p.m. Sunday, March 16 at the museum. The exhibit’s grand reopening is free and will include crafts for children, songs and more.

To visit the exhibit on other days, the museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, 2200 Broadway, Redwood City. Tickets are $3 to $5, children five and under are free.

More information at

(650) 344-5200 ext. 102

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