What’s the True Birthday of Ocean Beach and Who Is Our True Founder? – Part 3 : the Legacy of Smiling Billy Carlson

by on September 12, 2012 · 3 comments

in Culture, Economy, Election, History, Ocean Beach, Politics, Popular, San Diego

Horse carriages converge at the cliff and waters edge in what was to become Ocean Beach – circa 1888.

This is a continuation of my series, examining the timely issues dear to OBceans of “What’s OB’s True Birthday?” and “Who Is It’s True Founder?”

In Part One, a discussion was begun on the different theories on the birth dates for Ocean Beach –  with the main one being that OB’s birthday stems from a land rush celebration hosted by developer William Carlson and his partner Frank J Higgins in 1887.

The big shindig was held on April 24, 1887, and it was complete with a mussel roast, a band, free swimsuits and ice cream – with the main goal of selling lots to unwary folks thinking there was some kind of actual “rush” – even though the survey map had not been completed.  Carlson and Higgins, while naming their paper map “Ocean Beach”, provided no  services or utilities, yet they made promises of every kind, and claimed – falsely – that there was “pure” water in Ocean Beach, and that oil and gold had been found.

Hand-drawn rendering of the map for the DePuy Subdivision of what is now part of northeast Ocean Beach.

The dynamic duo actually made a whole rack of false claims in order to entice people to buy their OB lots. One of the most outrageous claims was the pledge by Carlson that the OB Railroad would link up with the Southern Pacific line – a major railroad in Southern California at the time. Carlson tried to build a line from Roseville to Ocean Beach – but it failed miserably – lasting only a week.

We also raised the fact that another land developer by the name of J.M. DePuy had actually developed plans and survey maps in 1885 for a sub-division in what is now part of northeast Ocean Beach – a full two years before Billy Carlson and Frank Higgins filed theirs.  And lastly, we touch on another theory, that D.C. Collier is a possible contender for the title of “Founder of Ocean Beach”.

In Part Two, while dismissing DePuy as a possible “founder” because virtually nothing is known about him, we begin to examine William Carlson’s involvement in the establishment of Ocean Beach, and what followed immediately after.

Even though the Higgins and Carlson duo were selling lots in OB for $300 by the summer of 1887 – the very next year – in 1888 – the Southern California land bubble burst. The partners’ boom in OB was over.

By 1889, Higgins – stuck with all the properties that Carlson couldn’t sell and losing them all to delinquent taxes – committed suicide.

That same year, their OB hotel – the Cliff House – mysteriously burned down – taking with it all records of land sales in OB.

Renown OB historian Ruth Varney Held – clearly not impressed with Carlson –  summed up what had occurred:

“Young Billy Carlson and his partner, Frank Higgins, bought up 600 acres of wild hillsides, put on a big promotion, sold a lot of lots, but it died the next year. …”

She also wrote: “before anyone really got started building houses, the boom collapsed.”

 Billy Carlson’s Post-Ocean Beach “Career”

Young Billy Carlson moved on after his experiences and losses from his failed Ocean Beach land venture.  But railroads were still in his head, if not his blood, as his exploits in rail were recorded by local historians. After his failed Roseville to Ocean Beach railroad, Carlson continued with his promotions.

Carlson next started construction of the Roseville & Old Town Railroad, of which one mile was built.

Another of his roads, the San Diego Union Terminal Company, and the San Diego Eastern Terminal, a later outfit, were to be built along Atlantic Street, following the bay shore and crossing the mud flats where the Marine base now stands, to a connection with the Roseville & Ocean Beach.  Some rails were put down on this project also. 

A right-of-way dispute developed with the California Southern, which resulted in a track crew of the California Southern throwing the Carlson tracks into the bay, along with a bath house keeper.  [“San Diego’s First Railroad” by RA Middlebrook and RV Dodge, San Diego History Center.]

Meanwhile, the company that had owned the steam engine for Carlson’s failed OB line had a rental claim against him for $1800.  He couldn’t pay, so one of their crews tore up the rails, which were then sold at auction.  Carlson did reclaim these rails as he bought them back through three of his other promotion railroad companies.

Carol Bowers follows Carlson in her essay in The Passing Parade entitled “Our Founder: Smiling Billy”.  She described an incident where Carlson opened up his Terminal line for a free short run along the waterfront.

“Four hundred people showed up for the ride, and Billy was so pleased that he decided to find backers for another line: the San Diego and Yuma Line.  He went to Salt Lake City and mentioned the names of a few prominent San Diegans. The Mormons checked; these people had never heard of such a line.”

When word of this misstep by Carlson reached back home, the San Diego Union newspaper – one of several newspapers serving the town in those days – denounced his “atrocious impudence”. But Carlson, apparently, fought to keep his name clean, and according to Bowers,

“… many San Diegans believed him.  So many, in fact, that Billy decided this might be a good time to run for public office. He easily won the position of county assessor in 1891 and went on to win election as California state assemblyman in 1892.”

 And much like another  young state assemblyman named Nathan Fletcher who over a century later, eyed San Diego’s plum job of mayor from his seat in Sacramento, Carlson decided to use his apparent popularity and enter the campaign for San Diego’s mayor.

The 1893 Mayoral Election Carlson Promises ‘the Millennium’

The year was 1893. The mayor election was “a memorable one” according to one of San Diego’s early official historians, William E Smythe. There were five candidates in all. Both the major parties – the Republicans and the Democrats – fielded candidates, and the People’s Party also had one in the ring. There were two independent candidates, Carlson and a Capt. Friend.  The candidates of the three regular parties were “substantial citizens in good standing”, older residents, city officials and businessmen.

But when the votes were counted, it was found that Carlson, a comparative newcomer and novice in the city’s politics, had twice as many votes as any other candidate.

 So, Smiling Billy Carlson had won the mayor’s seat of his beloved San Diego. He was ecstatic. (Of course, these were the days when only about 3500 votes were cast in total.) How had he pulled it off – particularly against the stalwarts of local politics and he a new-comer?

The official (Smythe) history has it this way:

Although he entered the race for mayor last, he won out handsomely by dint of hard work and promises.

Every politician makes promises. But what were Billy Carlson’s?

As soon as ‘Billy’ got into the mayor’s chair, there were to be new electric car lines on every street equipped in an impossible manner, hotels fitted up a la Edward Bellamy, lines of steamships to every port on earth, transcontinental railroads galore, the park was to be improved at once, everybody was to have plenty of work at the highest wages, and, in short, the millennium was to come then and there.

The historian hints that the voters “just wanted to see what he would do.” Yet, doesn’t it sound like just the sort of promises, pledges, and claims that Carlson made in order to get people to buy his lots in Ocean Beach?

Absurd claims – so, instead of the claim that OB had “pure” water, now, there will be steamships to every port; instead of gold and oil being found in OB, we have promises of “plenty of work” and “the highest wages”; instead of a railway to Roseville from OB, we have “electric car lines on every street”; instead of rail connections from OB to points north, we have “transcontinental railroads galore”.

 “As mayor,” Bowers tells us, “Billy promoted yet another railroad line, the San Diego, Phoenix, and Chicago. At the end of his first term, though, he was having trouble financing this railroad and was running into trouble with the city council, who complained that he was ‘cavorting around the country, making a show of himself to the city’s detriment.'”

In this franchise, Mayor Carlson was in cahoots with old man John D Spreckels – San Diego’s own robber baron who ruled his town for decades – and William Babcock – the original builder and owner of the Del Coronado Hotel – who was himself owned by Spreckels.

But “franchise difficulties and law suits over rights of ways plagued the line’s advance, and when more money was necessary, Mayor Carlson held a mass meeting in the Fisher Opera House at which $5000 in small contributions was raised. The mayor told his listeners:

“San Diego needs salvation as much as a sinner’s soul needs it.  It is a groundhog case.  If you don’t help yourself the Lord won’t help you.”

 He disappeared with the money and turned up in Mexico City, where he announced he had obtained a franchise from the Mexican government to build a line across the Lower California peninsula, on the old wagon routes from San Diego to Yuma, with a branch line to Ensenada.

There were excursion over the tracks already laid … and more fund raising events and much excitement, but no more rails were laid and the San Diego and Arizona Railroad disappeared from public attention. (The History of San Diego, Chpt 15.)

Re-election in 1895 – the Meteoric Carlson Still Flares

One historian notes that there were “no civic miracles” during Carlson’s first term of two years as mayor, except getting re-elected in 1895.  Again, he ran independently, and again the three parties – the Democrats, the Republicans, and the People’s Party – ran candidates.  Right after the election – in which less than 3300 votes were cast – the Union newspaper commented that “there was no special outward excitement …” but analyzed that as the results were not expected, one of the “disturbing factors” of the election was “the meteoric quality of the Carlson element”.

Not too soon after being re-elected, Carlson ran into political trouble. This time it was over water, the water flume and its storage reservoir. The good citizens of San Diego were getting their water via the privately-owned flume constructed a few years earlier that delivered water from the Cuyamaca Reservoir. The flume and its reservoir “had never delivered the volume anticipated and over the years the water had become somewhat slimy and odorous.”

So Smiling Billy got on a band wagon and led a campaign to buy the flume system and fix it.  But the company refused to sell it. So, another company jumped in and offered to sell water to the city from the San Luis Rey area, but Babcock – acting as Spreckels’ frontman – immediately offered San Diego water from the water system he was developing in the Otay area. Babcock manipulated the City Council and his project trumped the proposal from the rival San Luis Rey group.

Babcock began building more water systems, such as a dam at Morena, another one at Lower Otay, and another at Barrett.  He – and Spreckels – wanted to become the chief water supplier to the city. As the issue of who would provide the city water festered,City voters in 1886 approved a bond to raises monies to develop the Morena system. A drought the next year ruined the flume system, draining Cuyamaca, and forcing a search for water in the gravel beds of the San Diego River.

The election of 1897 was a mandate of the water system and who should be allowed to serve the city. The flume company supported one candidate and Spreckels and Babcock supported another.  Days before the election, Babcock publicly accused Mayor Carlson of reneging on his promise to support their company.  The San Diego Union upset at the insult to their ally unleashed on Carlson, and labeled him

“a relic of the boom,”  a charlatan, faker, traitor to the people, a cigar-and-smile trickster, political quack, pretender, clown, cheap gambler, bamboozier and a liar.

Adding to his unpopularity, on the approach of the election, Mayor Carlson demanded that Fire Commissioner George Marston – San Diego’s quintessential “enlightened” member of the ruling elite – resign because he had endorsed Carlson’s opponent. But Marston – who had many friends – went public with this, and the mayor’s political fortunes went south.  Another criticism it seems against Carlson was his heavy-handed wielding of his veto prerogative when dealing with the City Council. 

Billy Carlson was defeated – coming in third – and the Republican candidate D.C. Reed took over.  Could this possibly be the end to William Carlson’s political career?

There was one bizarre incident that involved Mayor Carlson that we should mention.  It was the winter of 1897, and city fathers – wishing to impress the US Navy – planned a carnival celebration of George Washington’s birthday of February 22nd, complete with “fancy dress ball, parades, horse races, a water parade on the bay and band concerts ….” The retiring admiral of a Pacific squadron was invited as the guest of honor – which he accepted along with a portion of the Pacific Fleet. The fleet was met by some coast monitors, gunboats, a steamer, and a British cruiser.

Billy Carlson got so excited that he wired Washington for permission to have British marines and sailors to march under arms in the parade. This was a parade to celebrate Washington’s birthday, the general who had defeated the British less than 120 years earlier. Both the US and British officials didn’t know quiet how to react to such an outlandish request, but permission was finally granted. Yet “two hours before the parade, the British Admiralty signaled that it would not be in ‘keeping with tradition’,” and declined to be involved in the parade.

After the Mayor’s Office

Carol Bowers picked up Billy’s trail after he left the mayor’s office:

In 1896, Billy decided to run for U.S. Congress on an independent ticket in support of protective tariffs for grains and more railroads in California. His opponent was W.W. Bowers [we assume no relation to Carol], the brother-in-law of Alonzo Horton [the “father of San Diego”].  The newspapers backed Bowers, who won, and Billy was out of a job.

Carlson returned to his land ventures and speculations. He began selling land over in Imperial Valley – which had been part of San Diego County.  Carlson followed his old pattern of making promises he couldn’t keep.  This time it all caught up with him. Bowers:

He got into trouble with [real estate speculations] when he sold lots in Imperial Valley through the U.S. mail, promising that if the value of the land did not increase 25% within a year, buyers could have their money back, plus 6%.  He “forgot” to pay the 6% and was taken to court on the charge of mail fraud. 

Despite boasts that he would prove his innocence once he was in front of the jury, the jury found Billy Carlson guilty of mail fraud and sentenced him to four years in prison.

Once out of prison, Carlson moved to Los Angeles, and according to Bowers, “made frequent visits to San Diego”. His last public appearance – as far as we know – was in 1933 when at the age of 69, Carlson addressed the San Diego City Council, asking them for a job. They declined.

Smiling Billy Carlson died in Pasadena in 1937 at the young age of 73.

Thus we have the Willliam Carlson saga. In an 2005 article in San Diego Magazine by Tom K. Arnold, he wrote:

William H. Carlson (1893-1897) A real piece of work, Billy Carlson was the quintessential handshaking, baby-kissing politician. Vague promises of building an eastern railway helped get him elected, but his frequent spats with civic leaders over his overuse of his veto powers and other shenanigans ultimately brought him down.

We can see how the legacy of Billy Carlson sits with us – over a century later – now that there’s more than just an outline of his life and exploits.  Is the man Ocean Beach deserves as its “founder”?

Next up, David Charles Collier – okay, so a park in northeast OB was named after him, who was he?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Wireless Mike September 13, 2012 at 3:29 pm

The DePuy subdivision street layout does not fit the layout of the surrounding area. At the DePuy boundary, some streets are offset. Notably, the offset of Castelar Street at Seaside Street, the odd-shaped intersection at Greene, Seaside and Froude Streets, the offset of Seaside Street at Greene Street and the offset of Etiwanda Street at Greene Street. It almost looks like the DePuy subdivision was established first and the rest of the area grew around it.

The northern portion of the DePuy subdivision between Castelar and Aliso (Valeta) Streets was apparently never built, probably because it went through a slough. That slough has since been drained and the area is now occupied by Nimitz Boulevard and several apartment buildings. Why plan a subdivision in a slough? That’s part of the mystery.

It is also worth noting that the DePuy subdivision later formed the northwest boundary of Collier Park, along Soto Street from Greene Street to Valeta Street.


Frank Gormlie September 13, 2012 at 9:38 pm

Wireless Mike – Thanks for the update. The other remarkable thing about this subdivision are the alley-less long lots. The original OB Rag was published out of our Etiwanda St house, and I remember how deep the lot went, room enough for a studio, a garden, a boat being built … That house is still there.


micaela shafer porte September 21, 2012 at 7:16 am

nice series… i love how delving into history reveals the intrinsic nature of things: of san diego beach neighborhoods: basically,”the good life”, unscrupulous new-comer developers’ promises, issues of water, transportation and tourists… nice to know some things never change…


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