Step back in time with this colorful self-guided walking tour of downtown Half Moon Bay.
With charming storefronts brimming with locally owned shops and eateries, Downtown Half Moon Bay epitomizes old-fashioned Main Street. Its tree-lined sidewalks and well-preserved 19th century buildings recall a simpler, more personable time before big box stores and football field-sized parking lots. Yet those quaint storefronts hold more than tantalizing goods. Peek into the history of downtown, and you’ll discover captivating, often hidden stories captured in its buildings. Enliven your next visit with the following walking tour that brings to life the colorful personalities and events that shaped Half Moon Bay.
FROM RANCHO TO MODERN-DAY HAMLET
When you stroll Half Moon Bay’s historic Main Street, you’re walking in the footsteps of a motley cast of characters, from 19th century gold seekers and Mexican soldiers to Spanish explorers and Ohlone tribes. Long before its streets hosted vibrant art and pumpkin fests, downtown Half Moon Bay was a rural ranchero community, the result of land granted by the Mexican government to Candelario Miramontes, a military officer at the Presidio of San Francisco. Miramontes dubbed his new land Rancho San Benito, but, after the Gold Rush brought hordes of fortune seekers west, newcomers began referring to the village as Spanishtown. As the burgeoning town developed—its streets suddenly filling with many of the buildings listed below—the nearby crescent-shaped coastline inspired residents to redub the town Half Moon Bay in 1874.
STROLL COASTSIDE HISTORY
Start at the Main Street Bridge (300 Main St.) which in its earliest form has served as the entrance to town since the days of the Miramontes ranchero. In the 1800s, Mexican settlers and American pioneers would traverse a simple wooden bridge that spanned Pilarcitos Creek. In 1900, local mover and shaker Joseph Debenedetti—a county supervisor who had a hand in numerous downtown buildings—called for the county’s first steel-reinforced bridge which still stands today, a survivor of the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes. Note that the steel used to bolster the concrete bridge was sourced from San Francisco’s discarded cable car tracks.
From the bridge, amble down Main Street to the Zaballa House (324 Main St.). Built in c. 1855, it’s the oldest home in Half Moon Bay. Estanislao Zaballa—who would become an early town planner laying out Half Moon Bay’s streets and blocks—married into the Miramontes family and built this wooden Greek Revival home which stood in stark contrast to the surrounding adobes. Today, you can sleep where Zaballa laid his head. The historic home now serves as a bed & breakfast hosting guests in its antique-filled rooms. The inn welcomes everyone to visit its captivating History Room filled with fun artifacts from Half Moon Bay history including a large model of Spanishtown’s downtown business district as it appeared in 1861.
One of the buildings that you’ll see in the Spanishtown model is Bidwell’s Store, a blacksmith and harness shop owned by Henry Bidwell, Spanishtown’s first postmaster and one of the first Anglo business owners in town. Today, the site is occupied by Half Moon Bay Feed & Fuel (331 Main Street), a wondrous farm supply emporium founded in 1911. With everything from western saddles to fuzzy baby chicks, the 107-year-old shop embodies the region’s rural and agricultural legacy. Across the street, the wonderfully atmospheric San Benito House (356 Main St.) has served as a restaurant, inn, and bar for over a hundred years with wood plank floors, taxidermy-adorned walls, and vintage saloon lamps. Wander in for a beer and drink in the atmosphere.
One of downtown’s most notable buildings is actually a replica. The original building that currently houses Cunha’s Market (448 Main St.) was lost in a 2003 fire and faithfully reconstructed including its striking copper cupola. The previous building began life as—what else—a saloon dubbed the Index Saloon because it was thought to be the one by which all others should be measured.
The Beaux-Arts beauty at 501 Main Street is City Hall, built in 1922 as the Bank of Half Moon Bay. Shortly afterward, it became the Bank of Italy, the predecessor to Bank of America founded by San Jose-born A.P. Giannini who made his fortune offering savings accounts and loans to the working class and not just the uber wealthy. Peek inside and look for the building’s original vault.
As you browse downtown’s many boutiques, take note of Old West facade at 527 Main Street. The storefront housing LuzLuna Imports gift shop is the oldest retail building in town, built in 1873 as Giuseppe Boitano’s Store. It’s not a stretch to imagine its rollicking past as a saloon and general store complete with sidewalk hitching post.
Across the way, you’ll note the chimney-less Gilcrest House (538 Main St.) Having witnessed the devastating 1906 earthquake which toppled its fair share of brick chimneys, John Gilcrest—owner of the town’s prominent Occidental Hotel—insisted that his house would not feature a chimney. Subsequent owners, however, had different plans and decided to add a chimney...only to have it collapse in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake.
Head east off of Main Street on Miramontes Street and you’ll arrive at a quaint American Colonial home which originally served as the first English-speaking school in Spanishtown (611 Johnston St). The school was founded by the Johnston family for their children and neighbors.
Before being rolled via logs to its current setting, the schoolhouse sat near the family’s home, now one of the most iconic buildings in town, The James Johnston House (Higgins Canyon Rd.) James Johnston, a Scottish immigrant who served in the Mexican-American War, purchased over 1,000 acres of the Miramontes Rancho in 1853, acquiring the land south of what is now Half Moon Bay. His restored New England-style white saltbox home—sloped roof with two stories in front, single story in back—stands against an idyllic backdrop of green fields and rolling hills, visible from great distances along Highway 1. The home is open to to the public on the third Saturday of each month from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (the home is closed October, November and December).
At the northeast corner of Johnston and Miramontes Streets sits one of Half Moon Bay’s architectural gems, the 1872 Community United Methodist Church (777 Miramontes St.). The Gothic Revival chapel is one of the oldest Protestant churches in the West and was designed by Charles Geddes, the renowned San Francisco architect who designed the iconic chapel in Yosemite. Note the names stamped into the sidewalk fronting the church. They’re the church’s early pioneer supporters whose names were incorporated into the original 1911 sidewalk.
Perhaps less angelic is the nearby two-cell 1919 Old Jail (505 Johnston St), a popular overnight accommodation for the town’s indulgent saloon patrons. Directly behind the jail is the Thomas Johnston Barn, one of the few remaining industrial buildings in town. Along with brothers James and William, Thomas Johnston attempted to bring dairy cows from their home state of Ohio to Spanishtown. The venture never really took hold, and Thomas started a freight business to serve the burgeoning agricultural and lumber trade. Today, the barn is being developed as the future museum home of the Half Moon Bay History Association.
At the corner of Kelly Avenue and Johnston Street, it’s hard to miss the Simmons House (751 Kelly Ave.), an ornate home built for William Adam Simmons, an early Anglo American resident of Spanishtown who operated a dual business behind his home. As both carpenter and undertaker, he’d build the coffins and fill them too. Today, it’s one of five structures within the Half Moon Bay region listed on the National Registry of Historic Places (along with the Main Street Bridge, Community United Methodist Church, James Johnston House, and Robert Mills Dairy Barn).
Interested in uncovering more fascinating tales from the region’s past? Get in touch with the Half Moon Bay History Association, a fantastic resource for Coastside history. In addition to its forthcoming museum at the historic Thomas Johnston Barn, the volunteer-run organization is teaming with the Half Moon Bay Coastside Chamber of Commerce and Visitors’ Bureau to create informative plaques for numerous historical landmark buildings in town. The association’s pocket guidebook “The Treasures of Half Moon Bay” offers a more extensive walking tour of the area with corresponding maps and historic photos. Pick up a copy at the Zaballa House and Chamber’s office.