Faces of Half Moon Bay
The book jacket for JoAnn Semones' new work promises tales of the characters who built the Coastside over the decades. Illustration courtesy JoAnn Semones

Anyone who claims to know the history of the Coastside as well as JoAnn Semones may be hard-pressed to prove it.

Semones, who has a doctorate in public policy, has been a Half Moon Bay resident and local historian for more than 30 years. She’s written five books on the maritime history of the Coastside, from the origin of the Pigeon Point Lighthouse to disastrous shipwrecks off the coast of Half Moon Bay. Last month, Semones released, “Faces of Half Moon Bay: The Coastside’s Most Colorful Characters,” a $15, 75-page volume published by Palo Alto Books that delves into a variety of historical figures of the area.

The book covers 10 men and women from different periods of Coastside history, spanning from the 1830s to the turn of the 20th century. The chapters are split into different categories of eras and roles. The table of contents is divided into Spanish Settlers, Adventurous Spirits, Entrepreneurs, Prohibition Purveyors, and Artists.

Semones has built a vast knowledge of the Coastside’s history over time. To research this book, Semones does exactly what she’s known for, writing extensive bibliographies because of her thorough research. Newspaper archives and area museums are good sources but only tell part of the story. For each subject, she interviewed a relative or someone who had firsthand knowledge of her subject.

“The job of an author and historian, I think, is to do enough of the legwork to ensure that what you’re writing is as close to the reality and truth of these people as we can possibly get,” she said.

The book contains photos donated by family and friends of people featured, as well as from museums, libraries, old newspapers and history associations. The first chapter explores the life of Francisco Gonzales, an early settler of the Coastside. He’s described as “The Last Toreador,” a type of Spanish-style bullfighter.

Semones interviewed John Gonzales Jr., the great-grandson of Gonzales. During the interview, she learned much of their family history and even held a prized sea chest Gonzales once owned that was salvaged from a shipwreck.

“You have this diversity of people and events in each of these chapters, but it definitely focuses on the key individual as well,” Semones said.

Another figure highlighted is Galen Wolf, a landscape painter who moved to Frenchmans Creek in 1926. Semones interviewed a former next-door neighbor to gain more insight. Wolf wrote the “Legends of the Coastland,” a series of fictional stories based on the area. Wolf was also known for his unconventional mosaic watercolor-style paintings.

Semones hopes the stories provide some perspective for readers about where and how these people lived. She believes that the fortitude of these pioneer Coastsiders — be they bootleg smugglers or renowned artists — teaches a lesson for today.

“This book is about people who overcame adversity and personal challenges,” Semones said. “Given today’s world of fear and uncertainly, I think these stories can inspire us to do our best and move forward.”

Copies of Semones’ book are available at the Johnston House, Paper Crane, Coastside Books and Ink Spell Books in Half Moon Bay, and Florey's Book Company in Pacifica. The San Mateo County History Museum will have the book in its gift shop when it reopens. Her collection can be viewed at gullcottagebooks.com.

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