A suspected haunted house, a jail for overindulgent saloon patrons, and a historic barn with a mysterious past. In a region chock full of mesmerizing historic structures, few capture the Coastside’s history and imagination like the Johnston House, former city jail, and what was previously known as the Thomas Johnston barn.

Two of the three structures—the Johnston House and city jail—are magnificently restored, open to the public, and offer a fascinating glimpse of the Coastside’s past. Now, the historic barn is set to be transformed into a dynamic, new history museum that will celebrate the vivid tales and dynamic figures that helped shape the Half Moon Bay Coastside.

The Johnston House

In its roughly 164 years, the Johnston House has seldom gone unnoticed. Perched on a prominent, solitary hill immediately south of Half Moon Bay, the stately saltbox-style home—a Colonial New England design with a two-story front and a one-story rear linked by a sloping roof—has caught the eye of motorists zipping along Highway 1. Yet, the house has often provoked more questions than answers. During much of the 20th century, it sat derelict and abandoned, prompting colorful ghost stories among local children. Then, during the summer of 1962, a vacationing couple took an interest in the home, and set in motion the unraveling of its history and the community’s subsequent efforts to save it.

Exterior photo of the Johnston House
Today, the restored Johnston House stands as it might have in 1855. Photo by Garrick Ramirez.

Malcolm Watkins, the chair of the Cultural History Department of the Smithsonian Institute, and his wife Joan were honeymooning along the California coast when they spotted the seemingly out-of-place East Coast structure. Immediately, they were out of their car, taking notes, and unwittingly embarking on a research project that soon had them up to their ears in microfiche. What they discovered was the tale of James Johnston, one of the first Americans to ramble into the precursor to Half Moon Bay, a Mexican village that Americans dubbed Spanishtown.

The Scotland-born Johnston immigrated with his family to Ohio, arriving in California like thousands of others in 1849, seeking gold in the Sierra Nevada. His gambit paid off when he found fortune in the mines, and earned more prominence and wealth by investing in San Francisco’s famed gambling hall, the El Dorado Saloon. When Mexican land grant owner Candelario Miramontes put his rancho up for sale in 1853, Johnston snagged over 1,000 acres extending south from what is now Half Moon Bay. Soon after, Johnston began construction on a house, thought to be modeled after his childhood home in Ohio, and a gift for his Mexican bride, Petra de Jara. When the first coat of white paint was applied, locals began referring to it as the White House.

Before construction on his iconic home began, Johnston tried his hand at ranching—he is credited as being one of the first to bring Eastern cattle to California after his three brothers made an arduous, cross-country journey with 800 cows—but unlike the Steele Brothers Dairy in Pescadero which began around the same time and thrived for nearly a century, Johnston’s didn’t fare so well. Johnston’s fortunes plummeted further with the loss of his four-year-old daughter in 1858, and his wife Petra in 1861. By 1877, the bank had foreclosed on his land, and Johnston perished soon after in 1879.

Johnston House Interior
The Johnston House's interiors are richly decorated with era-appropriate furnishings.  Photo by Garrick Ramirez.

The house was inherited by Johnston’s son, but after the property was sold to sharecroppers, the home began to deteriorate from neglect. By the time the Watkins stumbled upon it, the house was in ruins with stalks of Brussels sprouts growing up to its front door. In the early 1970s, talk of a new development for the former Johnston land sparked renewed interest in the house. With promise to restore the dilapidated structure, development agency Deane & Deane published the culmination of the Watkins’ research in the 1972 monograph, “The White House of Half Moon Bay.” Development plans eventually fell through, but the movement to restore the house had gained momentum with the formation of the Johnston House Foundation. After the City of Half Moon Bay acquired the house and surrounding property, the effort to save the home took on new urgency when a fierce storm collapsed the home in 1976. Over the course of more than thirty years, a coalition of the Johnston House Foundation, Joan and Malcolm Watkins, historic preservationists, and community support helped rebuild the home to its former glory.

Today, the restored Johnston House stands as it might have in 1855—with the addition of a new, stabilizing concrete foundation. Its interiors are richly decorated with era-appropriate furnishings including original pieces made available by Petra Johnston Cooper, James Johnston’s granddaughter. The home is open to the public on the third Saturday of every month (January - September) when costumed docents are on hand to answer questions, and an updated version of the Watkins’ monograph is available for purchase. Groups are welcome to request private tours in advance via johnstonhouse.org.

A New History Museum

In downtown Half Moon Bay, you’ll find a street named in honor of the Johnston family, and situated upon it, a pair of buildings with an interesting past and an exciting future. The first is a 500-square-foot concrete jail, commonly believed to have been built in 1911. With a pair of tiny cells, it primarily served as a 24-hour layover for bar patrons who had trouble finding their way home. For more serious offenses, the jail would hold prisoners until they could be transported to the main courthouse in Redwood City. By the 1960s, its jail cells had swung closed for the last time.

Half Moon Bay Jail Exterior
The old jail currently serves as a mini museum. Photo by Garrick Ramirez.

Immediately to the rear of the jail is a 1,650-square-foot barn that was long thought to be the freight barn used by James Johnston’s brother, Thomas (recent research suggests it is likely a replacement built in the early 20th century). In 1986, San Mateo County gave the jail and barn to the City of Half Moon Bay on condition that it be used for historical purposes. Now, after years of being virtually unoccupied, the historic jail and barn will serve as the home of the first Half Moon Bay History Association museum.

“Having a sizable space to work with for a local Coastside history museum is a dream for us,” says History Association Founder and Historian Dave Cresson. Incorporated as a nonprofit in 2006, the History Association began as an ad hoc group in response to inquiries about local history. “People would call and ask questions, and we’d hunt the answer down,” says Cresson, a researcher by trade who became a diligent resource and author on local history after acquiring the Zaballa House in downtown Half Moon Bay, and learning of its historical significance.

Dave Cresson
“Having a sizable space to work with for a local Coastside history museum is a dream for us,” says History Association founder Dave Cresson. Photo by Garrick Ramirez.

For the new museum, the historic jail will serve as a reception area—complete with small-scale displays—while the barn will house the primary exhibition space. Architectural drawings envision the barn’s rustic exterior enclosing a modern interior with a chrome-and-glass entryway, dramatic lighting, and permanent and rotating displays that might feature Native Americans, lighthouses, farming, and the raucous Prohibition years. “There are so many chapters in the book of Coastside history,” says Cresson who jokes that some of his best friends are people who lived a hundred years ago. “These were remarkable folks who worked hard at their dreams, and left us with a delightful, thriving community.”

When can we plunk down our admission and get a first glimpse of the museum?

“It’s going to take time to transform an old barn into a contemporary public facility,” says Cresson. “I’m hoping within two years.” The museum has submitted architectural drawings to the city, and identified a museum director, Lau Hodges, who previously served as the Director of Operations and Exhibitions for the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. The remaining hurdle is raising the necessary funds, and the public is encouraged to contribute at halfmoonbayhistory.org.

In the meantime, the old jail currently serves as a mini museum, and is open to the public every Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. It features a succinct history of the Coastside with a collection of fascinating antiques and relics, as well as the opportunity to snap a photo of yourself behind bars. The wardens are long gone, but as Cresson promises, “It’s staffed by eager docents who know their history and talk a good game!”

Garrick Ramirez is a freelance writer and photographer who loves sharing compelling destinations within California. As a native, he has yet to tire of exploring the many cities, small towns, and natural splendor found throughout the state. His travel guides have appeared in the SF Chronicle, Via Magazine, and The Mercury News among others. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and son.