The Allure of Johnston Street

By June Morrall

You don’t have to live on historic Johnston Street in Half Moon Bay – or be born into one of the pioneer families – to fall in love with the fascinating history of San Mateo County’s oldest town.

Johnston Street, east of the colorful shops on Main Street, presents a seductive introduction to the charms of old Half Moon Bay, a close-knit village known as “Spanishtown” over 100 years ago.

History is inescapable on Johnston Street. In brief, at 505 Johnston Street, the Spanishtown Historical Society operates a quaint museum in what was formerly the town’s two-cell jailhouse. Behind the museum you’ll find the “Thomas Johnston Barn,” filled with antique agricultural implements that help tell the story of farming on the Coastside.

A few paces to the south stands the strikingly beautiful Methodist-Episcopal Church built in 1872 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

While Johnston Street was where old Half Moon Bay’s political and business elite chose to live, their homes were not the fairy tale castles we associate with the rich and powerful from “over the hill” in Burlingame and Hillsborough.

In case you’re wondering how Johnston Street found its name, here’s a brief history of that pioneer family. Born in Scotland in 1813, James Johnston came to America as a child. During the Gold Rush he acquired 1, 162 acres from the Miramontes family, land close to the village now known as Half Moon Bay. At the time the Spanish called it “San Benito,” but to the Yankees it was “Spanishtown.”

James built the interesting New England-style “saltbox farmhouse” on a slope overlooking the romantic Pacific for his Spanish bride, Petra Maria de Jara. On the second floor there was a small chapel, and the walled garden and separate cookhouse are said to reflect the influence of Johnston’s wife.

When it was new, the house was painted white. Known as the “White House,” it became the center of social and cultural activities of the day. James and Petra came to symbolize the successful melding of the Yankee and Spanish communities.

James Johnston stocked his ranch with dairy cattle driven west from Ohio by his brothers Thomas and William. Thomas Johnston operated a fast freight business out of the restored barn now directly behind the Spanishtown Historical Society’s museum.