The Peninsula Beacon Got It Wrong About Ocean Beach Con-Men Carlson and Higgins

by on April 6, 2017 · 0 comments

in History, Ocean Beach

Over the years the OB Rag and the Peninsula Beacon have shared a friendly rivalry over coverage of the Ocean Beach and Point Loma areas. Even though we may make fun, we certainly appreciate their consistent and widespread reporting of these neighborhoods.

So, when we point out something that the Beacon got wrong, they know not to take it personally and take it in stride as part of the journalist’s world.

Such is the case, then, when recently Beacon editor Thomas Melville got it wrong about the early Ocean Beach pioneer developers Billy Carlson and Albert Higgins.

In an introduction to the Beacon‘s “Readers Choice Awards 2016”, Melville began with a brief account of how Carlson and Higgins changed the original name of the coastal stretch of “Mussel Beach” to “Ocean Beach”, for the reason “to make the neighborhood a little more appealing to would-be investors.”

But then Tom finished his short history lesson with this:

“Carlson and Higgins were also skilled businessmen whose acumen rested on fairness and customer service.”


Billy Carlson and Albert Higgins were con-men developers who swindled would-be investors out of their money and really didn’t do anything for Ocean Beach except change the name, hold big parties at the beach, and build the first hotel – which burnt down from suspicious origins.

Yes, we know that OB merchants promoted Carlson and Higgins back during the 125th anniversary of the “birth” of Ocean Beach.  And some even call Billy Carlson “the father of Ocean Beach”.

[We side with OB historian Ruth Varney Held who named David C Collier as the true Father of OB.]

But whether Carlson and Higgins fit the all-too familiar pattern of con-men as developers or whether were model businessmen, if this dispute can lead OBceans into knowing more about the early history of Ocean Beach – that’s great.

In a four part series about the birthday and founders of OB written in 2012, we wrote this about Carlson and Higgins (part 2):

Smiling Billy Carlson

…  What do we know about Smiling Billy Carlson? We know that Carlson – along with his partner Frank Higgins – named their subdivision “Ocean Beach” in 1887. We know he was a two-term mayor of San Diego – and that he later ended up in federal prison for mail fraud.  That’s a broad outline. What else? What sources are there on Carlson? …

William H. Carlson got an early start, and at the age of 23, was already involved in real estate – he had an office on Fifth Avenue in downtown San Diego.  … Meanwhile, the man soon to be Carlson’s partner, Frank J. Higgins, had already incorporated the Ocean Beach Company, the Ocean Beach Hotel Company, and the Ocean Beach Rail Road Company. Higgins didn’t live in Ocean Beach – no one really lived in Ocean Beach back then.

When these two partnered up – they created the sub-division of Ocean Beach.  In April of 1887, they purchased what they called the Ocean Beach tract – a tract of wild hillside somewhere between 300 to 600 acres.  It included the land now known from Brighton Avenue south to Point Loma Avenue, and the land between the ocean east to Froude Street.

Previously, the area had been called “Mussel Beds” and had been a popular picnicking spot for San Diegans living in Old Town. But in order to get to what became known as OB, it often took a half day trip by horse or carriage across mud flats and rocks from either Roseville on the bay side of the Peninsula or from Old Town itself. There weren’t houses yet in the area except a couple of shacks.

The partners hired a land survey company, laid out the lots and blocks, and named the streets – many of which are still  retain those original names. As soon as they had bought the tract – and before the survey map had been completed – Higgins and Carlson began extolling the virtues of what they called “the Garden of Eden”, and began selling land in OB. …

Land Rush Celebration Held in April 1887 – Is this OB’s Birthday?

The duo then began planning their actual shindig – a huge celebration for late or mid-April at the beach, complete with a mussel roast, a band, free ice cream, bathing suits – all to entice visitors, tourists, and potential residents – but most importantly – to attract land buyers.  Their lots went on sale for $60 – $20 down and the balance in a year.

As part of Carlson and Higgins’ hype, they placed full page ads in the San Diego Union – “flamboyant” ads with lots of fabrications. Doyle stated:

“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.”

Carol Bowers – in her wonderful little essay, “Our Founder: Smiling Billy” described Carlson’s approach and style during the OB land rush:

Prospective buyers agreed that [Ocean Beach] was a nice place to visit, but would anyone want to live there? There was only one rutted road leading there from San Diego and it took half a day to make the trip.

Billy was undaunted,” as he promised that there would soon be a railway.

“…What about some basic services, like water?

Billy would hand them copies of his latest ad: ‘Visit the wonderful water well at Ocean Beach.  San Diego can now boast of the purest and finest drinking water in the world, found in inexhaustible quantities in Ocean Beach.’ And Billy just happened to have a sample of the ‘pure, soft water’ t offer visitors to his office, along with the news that one of his customers had discovered gold nuggets in the soft sandstone cliffs.

Not only that, Carlson was sinking an oil well since there were great indications of that resource also.”

Yet, claims by Higgins and Carlson of “pure water”, gold and oil being found in Ocean Beach weren’t enough.  Doyle found that

“… the most outrageous claim they made in the [newspaper] 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.’”

One has to understand the history of San Diego’s desperate efforts during the late nineteenth century to acquire a railroad in order to appreciate the absolutely outrageous and absurd nature of this claim.  It was simply a complete fabrication – clearly meant to misrepresent the status of local access to railways to potential buyers of the OB lots.

The weeks before the big shindig, the dynamic duo ran full page ads each day in the Union. And finally, the event on April 24th – which some claim is the birthday of Ocean Beach itself – happened. It was, as Doyle described:

“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.”

Bowers described that the April 24th celebration brought “out huge crowds”. “Lots” she said, “were for sale … – and 2500 were said to be sold that day alone.”  On August 21st of that year, the partners held a second barbeque  “at which 4,000 lots were sold, even though the price had gone up to $300.”  This now seems to be quiet an exaggeration as there were only 4100 lots to begin with.

Carlson and Higgins had played San Diegans and – at least in the immediate sense – it had worked.  Doyle described it:

“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 and  hectic. 2500 lots were sold in three days and the land survey map wasn’t even finished.”

“The partners were ecstatic,” wrote Carol Bowers, it looked as if the boom would never end.” She adds:

“They proceeded with the construction of the Cliff House, a large Victorian hotel, completed in January 1888 and announced an anniversary celebration to take place in April [1888].”

On May 28, 1887, Carlson and Higgins filed their maps of the plans for their subdivision – and they’re actually still part of the official maps of OB. Each of their blocks had 48 lots and there were 86 blocks in the tract.

Landmarks on the map included the Mussel Beds from Narragansett to Santa Cruz, Abalone Cove at the foot of Del Mar, Rocky Point at the foot of Pescadero, and Sea Bass point at the end of Bermuda.  The partners introduced the idea in full page ads that “Ocean Beach is the Garden of Eden”.

Doyle observes:

On January 14, 1888, Carlson and Higgins reached their peak in splendor and hucksterism by sponsoring the ‘Grand Excursion’ from Los Angeles for prospective buyers. …

 Billy’s OB Railway and Steam Line

Nearly one year to the day after the grand celebration in April 1887, William Carlson’s San Diego, Roseville & Ocean Beach Railway “made a successful run all the way to Ocean Beach”, recites Carol Bowers.  She was being kind to Carlson and Higgins. Carlson had promised OB land buyers that there would be a railroad to OB, and he apparently placed a lot of time, energy and money into building some kind of railway to OB.

Dennis Doyle with his sub-heading of “The Ocean Beach Railroad Rip Off” was not so kind. He called it:

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

As Doyle continued, Carlson and Higgins had another plan up their collective sleeve.  “…The motor line they had promised was another story.”  Promised for a long time, it “was vital if the entire land sale was to come well. So some attempt had to be made to provide a steam motor road into OB.”

Despite all the promises and travel guide listings, it wasn’t until March of 1888 that the railroad was constructed. But it had been built hastily and poorly engineered.  And it had so many troubles.

Carlson’s first problem began with leasing a steam engine for his line at $25 a day.  Another challenge was getting the engine to Roseville so it could be used as no barges were large enough to transport it across the bay. Carlson then was forced to dismantle the engine in order to take it by horse and wagon. However, the wagon got stuck in mud flats near Old Town – and this all delayed the opening of the railway.

According to a full page newspaper ad, the railroad was to run from Roseville through Wabaska Canyon (where today Nimitz Blvd goes north from Loma Portal down to nearly sea level) over to Ocean Beach. It was to continue over a bridge to Mission Beach, PB, La Jolla and Del Mar.  Carlson soon sold the franchise and nothing past OB was ever built.

As the short line was being completed, Carlson sponsored his first founder’s day celebration to be held some time after the arrival of the first train, which did arrive finally at 4 a.m. on the morning of April 17th, 1888. News accounts reported that the train took four days to travel the 3 and half mile length of track.  It took so long because of the 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,” Doyle recounts.

Bowers described the first trip of Carlson’s train thus:

“Billy was aboard and had to jump out at intervals, since the train kept getting bogged down in the mire.  About 1 a.m. the few inhabitants of Ocean Beach heard its whistle tooting shrilly and turned out in great enthusiasm, firing guns and lighting a big bonfire.”

Bowers felt that the completed railroad “redeemed” Carlson’s reputation, “and the anniversary celebration went on as planned, this time with Carlson and Higgins aloft in a hot air balloon over the Cliff House ….”  She felt his reputation had to be redeemed because of all the accusations of fraud that seemed to follow Carlson wherever he went.

The first founder’s day celebration “generated much publicity for Carlson,” says Doyle. Distinguished speakers included an Assemblyman, a court officer, and Alonzo E Horton – the “father” of San Diego.

Yet once the brouhaha ended over the celebration, cold reality set in. The rail line to Ocean Beach only lasted a short while – Bowers said it lasted a few months, “mostly due to the fact that the company which had sold the ties to Billy had demanded their return for non-payment.”  One news report stated that the railroad was built just long enough to get the crowds to Ocean Beach and was “a thing of but a few weeks.” Ruth Varney Held said it lasted “for just about a week ….” Sounds like our Billy. Doyle reiterates:

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.”

Carlson did try to revive his railway in 1890, and one story has him traveling to Salt Lake City to find investors for his OB line as well as other paper railroads; he mentioned a few prominent San Diegans implying their sponsorship, but once the Mormons checked, they found no such investments.  Yet, railroads remained in Carlson’s plans … despite what happened in 1888 and 1889.

The Collapse of the Boom

During 1888 and the next year, the land speculation bubble in Southern California burst – which was part of a significant and long-lasting national recession during those years. …

Bowers described it:

In 1889, an economic depression swept the nation and dragged San Diego – and Ocean Beach with it – into a panic.  San Diego’s population dropped from 40,000 to 16,000 within a couple of years.”

The effects on Carlson and Higgins from the economic downturn were obvious. Davis said, “Such local celebrities as William Carlson, the developer of Ocean Beach … [was] outright ruined.”


“The partners were left with land they could not pay for. Frank Higgins collapsed under the stress.  His family sent him to a mental institution in San Francisco where he committed suicide.”

This was in 1889. Priscilla McCoy and Sally West, in their essay, “In the Beginning …”, described what happened:

“The national economic ‘bust’ of 1888 hit San Diego hard. … Banks failed, debts and rents were not paid, and properties were abandoned as people fled back to their snowy climates. In 1889 Frank Higgins committed suicide, but Carlson landed on his feet.”

Doyle joins in:

“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.”

Bowers later called that fire ‘mysterious’. There was more to the end of Carlson’s OB story, as recounted by Doyle:

“Frank Higgins … owned all the land that Carlson had not sold but lost it eventually because of delinquent taxes. … [Higgins’] wife, Belle, had bought 50 lots and refused to sell them and they too were later lost because of taxes.”

It was over for Carlson in Ocean Beach – a little more than one year after his grand “celebration”. Ruth Varney Held – clearly not impressed with him, summed it up:

“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 described it: “…before anyone really got started building houses, the boom collapsed.”

Carlson did go on and enter elected public service, first as County Assessor and then as Mayor of San Diego.

Carlson’s post-Ocean Beach politicking and questionable railroad deals including his exploits as mayor were  the subject of Part 3 of our Ocean Beach history lesson.

The picture of Billy Carlson and of Higgins drawn above certainly demonstrates that they were not businessmen to emulate and that “fairness and customer service” were definitely not part of their acumen. Sorry, Tom.

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