Half Moon Bay’s historic jail housed the town’s troublemakers many decades ago, and is now reopening as a museum home to artifacts, informative displays and docents eager to share their knowledge of coastside history.
One block from City Hall, the jail museum had a “soft opening” in June, and it will officially open with a ribbon-cutting ceremony July 19.
Visitors can walk into one of the two cells and experience incarceration circa the early 20th century and learn not just about the history of the one-room jail, but about the first inhabitants of the region — the Ohlone Indians — or the Portola expedition, which passed through the area. The museum offers insight into other turning points in coastside history, including the Gold Rush, prohibition and World War II.
“We really feel that we’re rich in history and the museum is a way to tell that story,” said Dave Cresson of the Half Moon Bay History Association, which manages the museum in partnership with the city. “It’s a small space, but it’s got a whole lot of history packed into it.”
Cresson described the opening as a “first step” to establishing a larger coastside history museum in the currently dilapidated barn that sits behind the jail. That effort is underway and would offer 1,600 square feet of space, Cresson said, compared to the jail’s 400 square feet. The goal is to make the jail a reception area for the larger “full-scale” museum.
The jail is the oldest remaining public building in Half Moon Bay. A sign above the door reads “1911,” but it was actually built in 1919, Cresson said. He discovered the discrepancy a couple years ago after combing through hundreds of editions between 1910 and 1923 of a now-defunct weekly newspaper called the Coast Side Comet.
Before the existing jail was constructed, Cresson said lawbreakers were held in a wooden shed in the backyard of a local judge’s home, which also served as the town’s courthouse. Articles in the Comet denounced that shed-turned-jail for its deplorable condition, he added, and called for an upgraded one that would be more fitting for a “modern” town that many believed to be up and coming at the time. In 1919, articles about San Mateo County supervisors approving a bond to buy the property for the new jail appeared in the Comet.
Cresson said it’s still unknown who built the jail, but he presumes it was the county.
“We keep finding out that which we thought was true, is wrong,” he said.
The jail was used primarily as an office space for the sheriff and occasional holding cell for drunks, Cresson said, while the real criminals would be taken to a county jail located in Redwood City at the time.
“In a little town like Half Moon Bay, there was not a lot of murder and mayhem,” he said.
Nonetheless, the jail could have contained just about anyone and was built to last.
“It would defy breaking out of. It’s one of the early uses of reinforced concrete and the cells are made out of very thick steel with very genuine barred doors,” Cresson said. “I wouldn’t have liked to be in prison in that place.”
The jail was used as such until about 1966 or 1967 and later it became an office for county mental health services, according to a press release, and in 1989, the city of Half Moon Bay acquired the building from the county with a deed restriction mandating that it be used to celebrate local history, Cresson said. It opened in the early 1990s as a museum, but its doors closed in 2002.
The jail museum will be open on weekends from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is at 511 Johnston St., near the corner of Kelly Avenue.
(650) 344-5200 ex. 102