The doors are closed at the San Mateo County History Museum, but staff is still busy digging through archives and reviewing new collections to present to the public virtually and in person when safe. 

Among work collecting materials from the Sheriff’s Office and diving into the county’s history on racial equity, the museum has also taken on a major project detailing the way highway development has substantially altered the makeup of the county’s towns. 

Considered a “treasure trove of stuff,” Mitch Postel, the president of the San Mateo County Historical Association, said 10 banker boxes stuffed with files from the Department of Transportation were collected containing detailed property listings and photographs set to be thrown away.

“There’s already out there a feeling about how freeways and highways can change environments. I’m not so sure we can change the world by saying, look there’s evidence of it, but that’s what we’re doing by providing future historians coming to do this work,” said Postel, noting the association is not taking an anti-highway stance.

Postel conducted a preliminary review of the documents over a series of weeks, something he said he would not have had time to do outside of the pandemic. Most of the items will be preserved by the association but some will be managed by other collectors, he said.

Inside he found information on the miles of San Bruno property seized to develop Interstate 380, claiming 81 single-family homes. The project was intended to connect the Bayshore Freeway, part of Highway 101, with Highway 1 along the coast but only made it to Interstate 280. The widening of El Camino Real and the construction of Interstate 280 also contributed substantially to change in the city. 

In south county, East Palo Alto saw major changes as well. The development of the Bayshore Freeway right through the city in the 1950s changed the makeup of the small town. Postel said historians have regularly pointed out the negative effects of the freeway project. 

“I never knew what was taken and how it was but these files list every property. You can see all these trailer parks, hotels, pieces of downtown,” said Postel. “It was a nice little town and this highway construction really did hurt East Palo Alto.” 

This project, he said, has linked to other focuses of the organization, particularly its work researching racism in the county. When looking at the documents from earlier days, Postel said appraisers would reference the percentage of Black residents in a neighborhood, allowing the state to purchase the land for less than they would in predominantly white neighborhoods. 

An online exhibit discussing the historical experience of Black residents has also been featured online, highlighting Black entrepreneurs, the county’s history of segregation and acts of racial activism. The exhibit functions as an extension of another featured in person at the museum, where first accounts are also accepted. 

“We have had lots of problems particularly among housing,” said Postel. “People say, ‘well there was no racism.’ Well, yes there was.” 

Similarly, the association has begun collecting personal stories regarding the pandemic, mirroring a project conducted after the 1918 earthquakes. Postel said he hopes this collection and others will be a good resource for researchers in the future. 

Postel is also conducting personal work focused on racial discrimination of Chinese immigrants, post World War II and the growth of the Chinese Communist Party. He’s begun conversations with surviving members of an immigrant Chinese family forced to leave their South San Francisco home after being rejected through a referendum by neighbors in the 1950s. 

Plans to develop a carriage house behind the museum have also pushed ahead to create a three-story display space for the association’s 30 vehicles, including multiple carriages built by Brewster & Company, one of the best American custom carriage makers in the world at the turn of the century. 

Funds are currently being raised for the project and Postel said he hopes phase 1 of development will occur in the spring. Once developed, he said private vehicle collectors would also have the opportunity to provide short-term displays on the grounds. 

Many of these items are stored either in the museum’s storage facility at the Redwood City Courthouse or in a 5,000-square foot storage facility built specifically for the association. Two staff members, a curator and archivist, have largely been tasked with managing and sifting through the organization’s various collections. 

Looking at his decades long career with the Historical Association, Postel said the organization has had to pass off some exciting offers, adding that taking on collections like the highway files is a huge commitment considering the limited storage space of the organization. 

“I was maybe a little more liberal about taking stuff in those days,” he said. “But as those years rolled on it became more and more apparent that if you keep going the way you’re going you’ll fill it up.”

The highway collection, titled “Get Out of the Way for the Highway: How Highway Construction Changed the Landscape of Post-War San Mateo County,” will be displayed virtually through a webinar hosted by Postel at 3 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28. Visit historysmc.org for more information on other exhibits featured by the San Mateo County Historical Association.

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106

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