The ghost of San Francisco circa 1900 may haunt some of the narrow alleys of Chinatown. You might sense its presence in the Ferry Building, completed in 1898, and one of the very few large buildings to survive the earthquake in 1906.

Ferry Building

But by and large, the city is a modern one that breathes more vitality than nostalgic sighs. To find the past, you must sit quietly,  calm your heart and breathing, and drain  your mind of all thoughts.

The Victorian Cliff House was finished in 1896
The Victorian Cliff House was finished in 1896

At age 33, a photographer named Willard Worden moved to San Francisco.

Through his lens, we catch a glimpse of the beautiful city that once existed, was destroyed in the earthquake, and rose from the ashes like a phoenix to rebuild itself.

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I visited San Mateo Museum of History on Saturday, and was impressed by how much it has to offer.

The museum’s diverse collection includes musical instruments, clothing, interactive displays, and a biotech and technology innovation exhibit, just to name a few. And I was very excited – even delighted? – to find some unusual turn-of-the-century artifacts.

With so much going on, there is some risk of creating a disconnected feeling, but the museum does a great job of pulling everything together to tell San Mateo County’s story.

Artist conception of the San Mateo County courthouse
1904 artist’s conception of the San Mateo County courthouse

The museum is housed in San Mateo County’s old courthouse.

Construction on the courthouse began in 1904. The large dome made of stained glass that would cover the courthouse was the most distinctive feature, but the building would be magnificent, regardless. However, residents of San Mateo County felt a deep connection to the courthouse than went beyond simply appreciating its beauty.

The San Francisco Call’s breathless description of the May 1904 groundbreaking ceremony provides a tiny window into their thoughts. It’s also a great illustration of how much times have changed. The paper reported that City officials declared a holiday, and the morning began with a parade, followed by a formal ceremony to lay the cornerstone. After several speeches and prayers, the residents enjoyed a barbecue “unrivaled in the history of the city”, while children sang patriotic songs. Later, the Redwood City Choral Society performed songs, such as “Laying the Cornerstone”, which I’m guessing was written for the occasion. Then, before departing to prepare for a celebratory ball that evening, the county residents sang “Auld Lang Syne” together.

Inside the 1904 dome
Inside the 1904 dome

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