Two Views of Ocean Beach’s Early Developers

by on July 3, 2009 · 11 comments

in History, OB Time Machine, Ocean Beach, San Diego

Ocean Beach - 1890 - future site of pier

Originally posted June 19, 2008

Last Saturday, June 14, 2008, the San Diego Union-Tribune ran two articles about Ocean Beach by Joe Tash, a freelance writer – the first on the town itself (“Seaside Village stays true to its activist past” – which can be found here), and the second about OB’s early developers. That got me remembering that the original OB Rag did a series about the early history of Ocean Beach. I perused my old boxes of Rags, and found a xerox copy of one of the articles in that series about Higgins and Carlson by Dennis Doyle, and have posted an excerpt below.

2 entrepreneurs developed town in the late 1800s

By Joe Tash / UNION-TRIBUNE /June 14, 2008
Long before Dog Beach, the People’s Organic Food Market and The Black became Ocean Beach fixtures, Billy Carlson and D.C. Collier put their stamps on this seaside community. The two entrepreneurs are considered co-founders of Ocean Beach for their pioneering roles during the late 1800s and early 1900s, said Pat James, a businessman and president of the Ocean Beach Historical Society.

Carlson and his partner, Frank Higgins, arrived in 1887, buying large tracts that previously had been Spanish land grants, James said. Until that time, visitors from the Old Town settlement had to undergo an arduous journey by horse and carriage, traversing mud flats, to reach the seashore.

Carlson came up with the name Ocean Beach and laid out most of the community’s streets, James said. He also built a cliff-side hotel that later burned down under mysterious circumstances. An economic downtown in 1899 ended their efforts. Carlson went on to become the 29-year-old “boy mayor” of San Diego, while Higgins eventually killed himself, James said.

Nothing much happened in Ocean Beach until 1909, when attorney Collier began to develop the community. He brought in utilities and a streetcar line connecting Ocean Beach with downtown. He also built an elementary school. Collier began selling home lots and was instrumental in bringing in Wonderland, a Coney Island-style amusement park that opened in 1913.

“Definitely when it opened, it was one of the biggest days in Ocean Beach history. It drew some big crowds for that time,” James said.

Wonderland lasted just two years, but delighted crowds with the largest roller coaster on the West Coast, a casino, a dance pavilion and a zoo. Floods and the opening of the Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park in 1915 put the park out of business.


Boom-Town Ocean Beach and the Great Land Rip-Off – an excerpt

by Denny Doyle, Staff Writer OB Rag, 1974

San Diego’s “boom” started in 1892 when Frank K.A. Kimball negotiated the railroad from National City to San Bernardino. From 1885 to 1888 development in the San Diego area was extremely rapid with resorts, farms, homes, and boom towns springing up everywhere. Ocean Beach was one such boom town and its developers were themselves a couple aspiring small robber barons: Carlson & Higgins – they dealt in land.

Ocean Beach beach front - 1903

William H. Carlson was listed under the real estate section in Climate, Resources, Topograph, Products directory for 1886. His advertisement said that he was involved in real estate, insurance, and land brokerage and that he had lots in Coronado and cattle ranches elsewhere in California. Carlson went into partnership with Frank J. Higgins, the incorporator of the Ocean Beach Company, the OB Hotel Co., and the OB Rail Road Co. In April of 1887 Carlson and Higgins acquired the tract in Ocean Beach. While there was no sale price mentioned in any of the accounts of the acquisition, the OB tract had been considered over-priced at $500 just two years earlier and one could safely assume that OB had been obtained at a pretty nominal price.

Immediately after they obtained OB and before even the land survey map was finished, Carlson & Higgins were busy hyping OB, gearing people for the great land sale. They placed an ad in a local guide book (tourists were already swarming into San Diego) suggesting a trip to one of the “charming retreats”, and be “amidst nature’s grand surroundings …”. The ad referred to an “elegant depot” and a “grand hotel,” and to “Ocean Beach, the great seaside resort of Southern California,” where Carlson & Higgins sold lots for $60 each, “only $20 down, balance in one year, no interest.”

On April 22, 1887, Carlson & Higgins placed the first of a series of flamboyant newspaper ads in the San Diego Union with lots of fabrications. Their ad stated that over 2,000 lots had been sold without advertising – not true; they promised that the “finest hotels in the state” would be built in OB – not true, and that the “Electric Street Railway” would soon connect Ocean Beach with San Diego, adding that the tracks were already being installed – not true. The ad also pointed out that there was no frost in OB and that the finest surf bathing could be found in this all year resort that had “the finest climate in San Diego.” These were true.

But the most outrageous claim they made in the ad was that the San Diego Railroad would connect with the Southern Pacific line and that the train from LA would go through la Jolla, Mission Beach and over a bridge into OB. They stated that the line would have over 300 bridges and that this route would be easier than the proposed Santa Fe Railroad along the eastern side of Mission Bay. Their full page ad said, “Ocean Beach is destined to be the Greatest Sea Side Resort in Southern California.”

The Big Land Rush

Carlson & Higgins ran an ad for OB in the San Diego Union each day during the last week of April. At 9 am on April 24 they held a huge promotional concert in OB featuring the City Guard Band. Ice cream was provided, bathing suits were furnished and a mussel roast was held for the visitors. According to the Union, over 1,000 attended.

The idea behind Carlson & Higgins whole campaign was to create an urgent rush on the OB land – and it worked. Sales during the last part of April 1887 were fast & hectic. 2500 lots were sold in three days and the land survey map still wasn’t even finished.

Finally Carlson and Higgins finished dividing up the tract into smaller parcels and on May 28, 1887, they filed maps of their plans for the subdivision. These are still the official maps of OB as we know it today. The subdivision consisted of the land from Brighton Avenue to Point Loma Avenue, and from the Pacific Ocean to Froude Street. The cross streets were numbered “First” to “Sixth” and were later given the names (alphabetically) Abbott, Bacon, Cable, DeFoe (now Sunset Cliffs Blvd.), Ebers & Froude. Coronado Avenue was originally named Pacific and Orchard was called La Jolla Avenue. [Ed.: for more on early OB developers and the naming of Ocean Beach streets, go here to an earlier post.]

Ocean front landmarks included the Mussel Beds from Narragansett to Santa Cruz; Abalone Cove at the foot of Del Mar Street; Rocky Point at the foot of Pescadero, and Sea Bass at the foot of Bermuda. Each block had forty-eight lots and there were 86 blocks in the tract.

Throughout the summer months of 1887 Carlson & Higgins continued to run full page ads in newspapers about OB. In July the idea of “Ocean Beach the Garden of Eden” was introduced. Later that summer, the developers placed a large ad for their “Grand Barbecue at Ocean Beach” on Sunday, August 21. 4,000 attended according to reports. On January 14, 1888, Carlson & Higgins reached their peak in splendor and hucksterism by sponsoring the “Grand Excursion” from Los Angeles for prospective buyers.

The Ocean Beach Railroad Rip Off

Carlson & Higgins’ efforts to secure transportation were also strictly promotional. Carlson’s statements that Ocean Beach would be on the main line on the Southern Pacific Railroad was just another scheme he used to sell OB. No such plans ever existed.

But the motor line they had promised was another story. It had been promised for some time and was vital if the entire land sale was to come off well. So some attempt had to be made to provide a steam motor road into OB. On November 30, 1887, the San Diego Union reported that the schooner “Valante” had left a cargo of railroad ties at Roseville (on the other side of Point Loma) for the OB Motor Road. And many local travel guides in 1887 listed this short railroad called the Ocean Beach Railway or Ocean Beach Motor Road.

In fact it was in March of 1888 when the railroad was being hastily and poorly constructed. The San Diego & Del Mar Railroad Co. ran a full page ad in the newspaper under Carlson’s name. According to the ad the Railroad from Roseville was supposed to go through Wabaska Canyon to OB, over a bridge to Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, La Jolla, and Del Mar. Carlson quickly sold the franchise for the railroad, and it was never built past OB.

As the little rail line was nearing completion in April of 1888, Carlson sponsored San Diego’s first founder’s day celebration. This generated much publicity for Carlson. Distinguished speakers included Assemblyman Nestor Young, W. Russell, Court Officer, and Alonzo E. Horton, “father” of San Diego. Then on April 17 at 4:00 am the first trip of the”Ocean Beach Railroad” took place. Newspaper accounts reported that the train took four days to complete the 3 1/2 mile journey because of poorly-laid tracks and borrowed equipment. The rails were apparently way too light and the ties were spaced 6 to 10 feet apart and had been rapidly and poorly laid.

The OB line attempted to run for a short time but the several miles of train service was soon discontinued and people took the stage instead from Roseville to OB. With the railway inoperative, the land scam was threatened. Then on July 22 a small discovery of gold was reported one block south of the OB Hotel, the three story building at the foot of Niagara Avenue. The report was false but for a short time it created further interest in the area.

Once again Carlson reportedly tried to revive the railroad. He traveled out of town in March 1890 apparently to raise money to improve the line but nothing ever came of this effort.

Goodbye Higgins & Carlson

Finally in April of 1890 the San Diego Union printed the inevitable: “The Carlson Railroad Torn Up Across the Old Town Flats.” The ties were removed for payment of debts by workers from the Pacific Coast Steamship Co. According to a local report, the railroad was just to get the crowds to OB and was “a thing of but a few weeks.”

When the 1880s ended so did the boom for OB and for Carlson & Higgins as well. Carlson managed the hotel for awhile and in 1891 he published a guide book for Ocean Beach. The Hotel itself burned down in 1894 and all records of land sales were apparently destroyed in the fire. Carlson’s partner, Frank Higgins, according to an early OB resident, owned all the land that Carlson had not sold but lost it eventually because of delinquent taxes. One report has Higgins committing suicide. His wife, Belle, had bought 50 lots and refused to sell them and they too were later lost because of taxes.

With the early 20th century economic downturn, there was no great rush to build in Ocean Beach.

[Editor: Billy Carlson went on to become San Diego’s youngest mayor. Later he was imprisoned for fraud.]

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Wireless Mike July 3, 2009 at 3:12 pm

Great photo of the Bacon Street Bridge.


Frank Gormlie July 3, 2009 at 6:08 pm

Wireless Mike – that bridge also held a trolley track. You could go from OB to Mission Beach in a matter of minutes. People fished off the bridge. It was demolished in the Fifties to make way for the waterland park that Mission Bay was to become. Afterall, you couldn’t sail under the bridge, and you know how important that was to the masses.


Frank Gormlie July 3, 2009 at 6:09 pm

… also, if you notice in the right bottom corner a set of buildings … they’re still there: the Abbott Street liquor store and market.


Wireless Mike July 3, 2009 at 10:16 pm

My Dad used to fish off that old bridge (way before my time). No jetty back then, and Mission Bay was a big estuary. It looks like this picture was taken before they built the causeway from Midway drive to Ingrahm Street. I love these old photos.


Pat July 6, 2009 at 8:07 pm

That is a cool shot you can see the remnants of Wonderland.
From what I recall reading, the bridge went in in 1915 and demolished in 1951.You can still see the curbs that lead to the bridge on West Point Loma Ave.just west of bacon st. where the city has there pump station building or whatever it is.


Mark October 25, 2011 at 12:11 am

If the caption on the top photo is correct (Ocean Beach beach front 1903), then it can’t be the remnants of Wonderland; according to this article, it wasn’t built for another ten years (1913). 1903 sounds like an accurate date, as there aren’t many buildings in the photo. It would have been built up a lot more a decade later.

Either way, it’s an amazing photo! Taken from a hot air balloon, maybe?


Mark October 25, 2011 at 12:15 am

Or maybe the caption is wrong…If the bridge was built in 1915, then it can’t be taken in 1903. Wonderland was washed away a few years after being built in 1913, so maybe this photo is from the mid-late 1910’s, and not 1903 as the caption states.

Whatever the date, I like the photo so much I might blow it up and frame it on my wall!


Frank Gormlie July 6, 2009 at 8:24 pm

I love this photo! You know if you click on it, it fills your screen and is very clear. Check out what Mission Bay used to look like. The river at that time emptied into the shallow “baia falsa” in a northerly direction.


Dave Gilbert July 6, 2009 at 8:51 pm

Yeah Frank, I had to save both of these pictures, I love stuff like this too.

I also have a road map of San Diego from 1957 and what is now Mission Bay still looked like a big undeveloped marsh.

It also looks like there was an air strip called “Pikes Field” over by where Sea World Dr. and Friars are now.

The only 3 Highways were the 101, the 80 and the 395. I love it!


bob dobbs October 10, 2014 at 5:44 pm

it’s good to know the history of anywhere you live and/or spend lots of time .
this was interesting to read .


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