Half Moon Bay Jail Museum

Half Moon Bay, California | C.1919

Photo Credit: Sonia Uppal

Before a jail was built in Half Moon Bay, lawbreakers were held in a wooden shed in the backyard of a judge’s home – which also happened to be the town’s courthouse. The conditions were so bad in the shed that the town’s newspaper called for a new jail and in 1919, the Half Moon Bay Jail was built, still standing today as a historical museum.

Situated on the California coast, Half Moon Bay emerged as a small town in the 1840s. Ohlone Indians first inhabited the region before Spanish missionaries moved in. The area was known as San Benito, then Spanishtown before adopting the name Half Moon Bay in 1874. By the turn of the 20th century, the town had become a hotbed of industry and a culturally diverse community.

Although the California Gold Rush attracted ambitious residents to the town, it undoubtedly attracted troublemakers, too. As Half Moon Bay evolved, the need for a proper jail was evident. Resident John Higgins sold his plot of land to the County where the one room, two cell jailhouse was constructed at a cost of $3,000.

Used primarily as a sheriff’s office and holding cell, the Jail operated until the 1960s – hosting its fair share of overnight bookings and drunken revelers as more dangerous criminals were transferred to the county jail in Redwood City. By the 1970s, the Jail was used as the location for the County’s Mental Health Services office and then ultimately turned over to the city.

In 2018, the Half Moon Bay History Association reopened the Jail as a museum. Visitors can explore historic artifacts, exhibits, and take a tour of the property. Today, the building that once locked up Half Moon Bay’s delinquents, now holds a key to its colorful past.

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