From Steam Engines to a STEAM Lab: 40 Years of Play at the Children’s Museum

In the year 1977:

  • a gallon of gas was .65
  • a movie called Star Wars came out
  • Jimmy Carter was president
  • The Eagles, Stevie Wonder, and The BeeGees ruled the airwaves
  • Apple II personal computers went on sale
  • and, last but not least, the first children’s museum on the West coast opened on December 2nd in a town called La Habra!

That’s right, the Children’s Museum at La Habra just celebrated its 40th birthday! Most of you know that part of our museum is housed in a historic train depot dating back to 1923. The Union Pacific Railroad Depot carried both passengers and freight, especially produce grown and processed in the area. Check out this picture showing the last run of a steam engine on the Union Pacific line on June 9th, 1956.


The depot closed to the public in 1950 and lay unused for over 20 years. In the early 1970s, following a visit to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, La Habra City councilwoman Robin Young presented a visionary plan to open a children’s museum here. The Union Pacific Depot, with its historical significance, unique architecture, and central location, was a natural fit for the proposed museum. The plan was approved. From 1972-1976, the city was able to achieve the monumental undertaking of securing funding and purchasing the Depot building and surrounding property. Architects worked to transform the interior of the building for use as galleries while maintaining original structures and design. If you squint your eyes a little, you can imagine how our Nature Walk looked as a waiting room, with tickets sold from the window in what is now the STEAM Lab.


Meanwhile, the city of La Habra Community Services department began to dialogue with the community and educators as to what exactly this museum would become. Remember that in the 70s, most museums were formal spaces geared to adults. Few models existed for an interactive, play-based space that appealed to children. The newly-created Friends of the Museum (now a 501c non-profit called Friends of the Children’s Museum) formed committees in the areas of fundraising, permanent collections, programming, and more. The Children’s Museum at La Habra officially opened on Friday, December 2nd, 1977. From its very first days, the museum served as a community hub where children could play, learn, and have fun!


Since then, the museum has been fortunate to have grown both in size and in scope. Another capital campaign project began in the late 80s to add a new wing which now houses our Science Station, Kids on Stage, and Preschool Playpark, as well as adding storage and office space. The museum staff (with many contributions from our Museum Guild and student volunteers) served about 90,000 visitors last year! We have diverse exhibits and programs spanning from arts education, school outreach, conservation, and performing arts. In October we opened a STEAM Lab (in what was the Nanny’s Travels room) as part of our commitment to Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics education in early childhood. We think our 40th year will be an exciting one- from January through May we’ll host Children of Hangzhou, a traveling exhibit from the Boston Children’s Museum. From June-December 2018, the changing gallery theme will be “Lindo Mexico,” an exhibit about the culture and beauty of our neighbors to the south. We at the Children’s Museum are so grateful for the support of our members, guests, volunteers, and community partners. We’re looking forward to see what the next 40 years will bring!