Charles Collier : the True Founder of Ocean Beach

by on March 27, 2021 · 3 comments

in History, Ocean Beach

There’s an historical character who walked across Ocean Beach’s stage over a hundred years ago, who had such an effect on the development of the community that he’s considered by many to be the  “true founder” of Ocean Beach. And that is Col. David Charles Collier – who Collier Park up in northeast OB is named after.

Although Collier came later than other contenders for the title, he had as much to do with what turned into our little village by the sea as anyone else. And more so.

“Charlie” Collier’s Story

Ocean Beach and Col DC Collier first intersected in 1887, when young “Charlie” – then only 16 – bought one of Billy Carlson’s lots in Ocean Beach. The lot was close to the cliffs, over on Pacific Avenue – now Coronado Avenue – and Bacon Street. Of course, as a youth – in all probability – he was backed by his father, DC Collier, Senior – a lawyer and former judge from Colorado.

Ocean Beach, circa 1890.

Young Charlie Collier first built a shack on the property – which had quite an ocean view – and over the years, he added to it until it was a mini-resort on the cliffs. He and his family lived there for decades. OBceans Priscilla McCoy and Sally West wrote about it in their essay:

“Among the families that camped on the beach [at Ocean Beach] was that of D.C. Collier Sr., who had been enjoying beach outings since moving to San Diego in 1884. The son, David Charles Collier, then 16 years old, bought one of the very earliest lots sold by Carlson, at ‘Alligator Rock’ (now Ocean Front at Bacon and Coronado). He built a shack or shelter for camping expeditions.”

Ruth Varney Held – OB’s original historian – also described the purchase.

“He called it ‘Alligator Rock Lodge.’ If you go to the beach there at very low tide, you can look up at ‘the rocks’ and see black areas of sandstone. No doubt old D.C. found one that looked to him like an alligator.”

The Collier family had arrived in San Diego only two years before that real estate purchase. Arriving by way of steamship, they disembarked at the 5th Avenue pier. Charlie’s family was from Central City, Colorado, where he was born in 1871, to Martha and David Sr.

Collier Senior had made a name for himself back in Colorado as lawyer, judge and newspaper man. Despite this apparent success, the couple decided to take the family farther out west, and in 1884 moved young Charles and his two siblings to San Diego. They arrived upon San Diego’s shores during the Southern California “boom” years, and dug in roots. Senior built the family a house on Sixth Street and within 5 years had become partner in a prestigious law firm.

Northeast Ocean Beach – early twentieth century. (Note bridge to Mission Beach and Abbott Street market.)

In the meantime, Charlie had a series of small-time jobs: janitor, messenger boy, and as a book keeper at a bank while he finished his public schooling at Russ High School. The school was on the edge of what was then called City Park – what later would become Balboa Park. As he found shade and solace under the park’s trees, he had no idea that someday he would be responsible for re-naming the park. At the age of 20, Collier passed the state bar exam and went to work in his father’s office as a lawyer. Upon the father’s death in 1899, David Charles began moving up the local social ladder.

This social movement is reflected in Charles’s first marriage to Ella May Copley in 1896.  Copley’s brother was Congressman Ira Copley from Illinois, who ended up buying both the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune. Ella and David Charles had two sons and stayed married for nearly two decades. The family lived at “Alligator Rock” in Ocean Beach for many years; they put in a Japanese Garden and bathing pool, and they apparently entertained many celebrity guests.

Following the boom years came the “bust” years of the late Eighties. Many of Collier’s clients couldn’t pay him for his legal services in cash, so they would pay him with deeds to what they considered worthless properties – real estate that they had acquired during the good years. Collier accumulated the properties, and then began to sub-divide the plots; he laid out streets, installed utilities, and planted trees. In 1904, he formed the Ralston Realty Company and began selling lots.

The lots were in OB, Point Loma, PB, Normal Heights, North Park, University Heights, and other areas – including La Mesa and Ramona. Collier had truly become a developer – and by 1909 had established the firm, D.C. Collier and Company, to manage the properties.

Collier’s Railroad Comes and Changes OB

Then Collier made something happen that totally changed Ocean Beach’s relationship with the rest of the world. To increase access to his sub-divisions in OB and Point Loma, he built a railway and called it the Point Loma Railroad. As told by Ruth Held, Charlie Collier saw a need for a trolley line out to Ocean Beach, much like those already operating to National City and Old Town.

“He dreamed up a neat route for it, bought the lots for the roadbed, and in 1907 started building. By May 1909, it was ready, and 250 of San Diego’s big-wigs came to the great party, the inaugural ride. All four cars of the new line were hitched up at the downtown plaza. Charles turned on the current, the City Guard Band played, and off they went.”

Collier Park – at the intersection of Soto and Greene.

Ruth Held continues the ride:

“They sped out to Dutch Flats (now Barnett Avenue), down Rosecrans, up to Voltaire and south again on Bacon. They got off at Niagara Street and had refreshments and speeches; they yelled, ‘Good boy, Charlie,’ and strolled over to his Alligator Rock Lodge to continue the festivities.”

Held sums it up:

“The trolley was a huge success, and by 1910 Collier had lots of company; there were 100 houses in OB by then. You can still see traces of tracks on Santa Cruz.”

In comparison, there were only 18 houses in OB just two years earlier. Details of Collier’s OB developments are detailed by McCoy and West:

“In 1908, the office changed to the D.C. Collier Company. … He opened the tract Ocean Beach Park just north of the Carlson Ocean Beach, from Brighton to West Point Loma Blvd. and east, to the Dupuy [sic – “DePuy”] Addition on Seaside, then to Wabaska Canyon (now Nimitz).

Voltaire and West Point Loma were planned as wide access streets. Lots on the narrow streets were offered in different size and configurations, but all small and intended for vacation dwellings. … He graded and paved streets, brought in utilities, and built a trolley line, which became part of Spreckels’s City trolley system.”

Picnic area and pepper trees, looking east, Collier Park in OB.

Once the new trolley line was established, what was to became the village of Ocean Beach got a kick in the ol’ proverbial pants. This significant access made it possible to have a community connected to the larger and growing metropolitan area of San Diego. Collier’s successful streetcar line was the turning point for Ocean Beach. San Diegans now could live at the beach and work or go downtown – as access to Coronado was limited.

Ruth Held analyzed it:

… In 1909, Col. D.C. Collier gave us a good streetcar line that made OB possible. For the first time people could work in downtown San Diego and live by the ocean. May 1, 1909, was the day the Point Loma Electric Railway really started OB. So now, in 1994 [ed: year Ruth Held wrote the essay], we have Streetcar Day to celebrate our 85th birthday.” (Our emphasis.)

What happened after the railway line was opened is described by McCoy and West:

“The opening of the trolley line in 1909 produced a rush of lot purchases, as well as a boardwalk the length of the beach, the cotton candy and games of chance style amusements, and ‘thousands’ of seaside visitors. Real estate excursions came from all points east and from Los Angeles. … One source notes 100 houses built by 1910. “

Yet, selling lots and building railway lines weren’t the only contributions for Collier in Ocean Beach. In 1909-10, he built a two-room school for the community with his funds, and called it the Ocean Beach School. And, of course, he donated that 60 acres for parks for the children.

Collier Outside Ocean Beach

Col. DC Collier had a life outside Ocean Beach (the “colonel” was a title of honorarium bestowed on him by a California governor) and he created a wide path of civic involvement in the larger metropol known as San Diego. (A year-by-year accounting of Collier’s affairs and involvements are beyond the scope of this historical accounting of the possible contenders for the title of OB’s “founder”, but we will tag the more noteworthy events.)

5th and Broadway, downtown San Diego, circa 1915.

Researcher and historian Richard Amero has written a great overview of Collier’s life in San Diego for the San Diego History Center. Amero called Collier “one of San Diego’s best known characters at the turn of the twentieth century.”

“He had a strapping figure, a leonine mane of hair, and flamboyant clothes. After returning from a visit to Brazil in 1912, he appeared at public meetings booted and spurred, with a striped poncho made of alpaca hair, a wide belt with knife attached, and an enormous sombrero on his head. He most often wore a five-gallon Stetson hat, … and a Windsor tie, ….”

Not only did Collier take on leading roles in the greater San Diego community over the decades as a financier, developer, philanthropist, and civic activist, he also owned the first phonograph in San Diego – a Berliner Gramophone, and the first automobile – an Oldsmobile that could go up to 25 mph, and travel 50 miles on 3 quarts of gas.

With his real estate successes, Collier expanded his holdings. In 1900, he bought mines up in the Julian area. Five years later he bought into a land and water company in Ramona, and eventually built a secluded, second home in the Bellena area. This is why there’s now a park in eastern Ramona. Charles built another house and chicken farm in the La Mesa Springs area in 1907 – and this is why there is also today a Collier Park in La Mesa.

The Politics of Water and the Progressives

The politics of water in San Diego have always been – obviously – of enormous concern to whoever lives in the region. Who was to serve water to the good citizens of San Diego was a huge issue at the turn of the twentieth century – and it had been an ongoing civic conflict for years over which company would sell their aqua-system to the city. And Collier got caught up in the conflicts.

On one side stood the water company that had built a flume system from Cuyamaca Reservoir and its political allies, and on the other side, stood the company that had built a system involving dams in the Otay area along with its influential friends and supporters.

George Marston, one of the leaders of the Progressive wing in San Diego.

Mr. San Diego of that era, John D Spreckels – our own robber baron – owned railways and utilities and properties all over San Diego and exerted huge influence on most, if not all, civic issues. Spreckels owned the Southern California Mountain Water Company – the Otay water system. Collier helped persuade the City Council in 1905 to override Mayor John Sehon’s veto that had blocked the city from buying water from Spreckels. From then on, Collier and Sehon feuded.

Gradually, Collier grew distant politically from the old-line Republicans who ran the local and state-wide party, and joined the Progressives – a wing that was challenging the old guard. Locally in San Diego, this meant going up against Spreckels and his friends and in turn supporting the Progressive opponents – like George Marston.

During San Diego’s infamous Free Speech Fight of 1912, Spreckels led the official and vigilante crack-down on the Wobblies and their supporters. During this period, the police were used in efforts to squelch free speech rallies. The superintendent of police at the time was none other than  John Sehon, Collier’s old nemesis. George Marston – meantime – and his progressive and civil libertarian allies – opposed the crack-down. Collier was his ally. And in fact, in 1916 when Collier ran for city council, he lost primarily due to his close associations with Marston.

Collier Park, La Mesa.

Col. Collier got around, and definitely traveled among the ruling elite of San Diego. While president of the city’s Chamber of Commerce in 1908, he organized a huge reception for President Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet – which was a fairly naked effort to get the Navy to dredge shallow San Diego Bay. He also served on the staff of California State Governor JN Gillett for several years.

In 1910, Collier organized the Aero Club of San Diego and became its president. He recruited a well-known aviator to set up a school on North Island. Over the next few years, the Curtis School of Aviation churned out fliers who world set b-plane records. By 1913 North Island had become famous for one of the best aviation fields in the country – and this in turn eventually led to the Navy setting up a base and airfield at the site.

Over at the city’s waterfront, legal developments were occurring that would allow the tidelands to be used by municipalities. For two years, Collier worked to obtain legislation at the state level using his Sacramento contacts that allowed San Diego title to its shores from National City to Point Loma. This legislation, according to a contemporary observer, gave “to the city of San Diego title to its tide lands, which are the basis for our present water front and harbor development.”

The Panama-California Exposition

Hands-down, Collier’s greatest achievement – outside of helping to establish the village of Ocean Beach – was being in the civic leadership of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. From 1909 to 1912 he was its Director-General, and from 1912-14 its President.

Looking south, La Mesa Collier Park.

Collier served without pay, covered his own expenses, as he lobbied in Washington DC for government support. He traveled to South America and Europe on promotional jaunts for the Expo, and he gave $500,000 of his own money to the project – a lot of money in 1912 – and was the Expo’s biggest booster.

Collier chose the central mesa of City Park for the site of the Exposition. In fact, he made the name change to “Balboa Park”, pushed for California Mission as the style of architecture of the Expo – opposing the more predominant neo-classical style, proposed the Indian background of the Southwest as the main cultural theme, and approved the hiring of known experts in Spanish/ Mission Colonial architecture (Bertram Goodhue) and landscaping (the Olmstead brothers).

Apart from all of that, Collier was a founder of the San Diego Museum (now Museum of Us), and supported archaeology research (he was a manager of a New Mexico school of social research and befriended significant local archeologists).

Playground equipment and tennis courts at La Mesa Collier Park.

Getting the Exposition rolling was not a cakewalk, as San Diego civil leaders ran straight into San Francisco’s efforts to hold a similar event. And more politics were involved. The northern city managed to achieve federal recognition of their exposition – and they did this through the conservative wing of the Republican Party – and defeated San Diego’s attempt for recognition. As Amero described it, “… their triumph caused Collier to join the Progressive wing of the party.”

With the success of the Exposition, after it did finally gain federal support, Collier found his finances hurting, and he had to return to the practice of law and land development. He later left for Chicago, invested in New Mexico, worked in Philadelphia, was an exposition consultant for the government of Brazil – but Collier would always return to San Diego and the practice of law.

Charles and Ella divorced in 1914, and Collier married Clytie who stayed with him to his end. One son – an aviator – was killed during World War I, and the other son became a newspaper man in New York City.

Wonderland Park in Ocean Beach and the Zoo

Originally, Collier’s Ralston Company built the famous Wonderland Park in Ocean Beach in 1913. But when storms destroyed it three years later, Collier managed the transfer of its animals that had been housed in cages at the northeast end of the park to the newly formed San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park. These were some of the very first animals to be exhibited in what was to become a world-famous zoological site.

La Mesa Collier Park – looking north.

Collier Builds Beach Cottages in OB

In 1924, Collier was again selling lots and had an office on Ninth Street. He continued to sell properties in OB, Loma Portal, Wonderland Park, and his firm continued to build beach homes, cottages and apartments from Voltaire Street to Point Loma Avenue.

Once more, he dabbled in local politics, running for County Supervisor in 1932 – unsuccessfully. Two years later, Col. DC Collier passed away, at the age of 63, and was buried at the Masonic plot at Mount Hope Cemetery.

Collier Parks Around San Diego County Today

Today, there are only parks left in his name to remind us of Collier’s civic and community achievements. There are three parks around the County: Ocean Beach, La Mesa, and Ramona.

Ocean Beach – we know about this one.

Collier Park in Ramona.

La Mesa – It is speculation to say that the reason there is a Collier Park in La Mesa is because Collier at one time bought a home and chicken farm in the area. But the park is there, and locals enjoy it, as it has modern playground equipment, plenty of green grass, trees, and a tennis court.

Ramona – The Collier Park in this east county community has been there for quiet some time; it has tennis courts and picnic areas, and a playground. The Ramona Farmers’ Market has set up shop right next door. Collier had also purchased land out in the Ramona area, and had invested in the Ramona land and water company.

It’s All a History Lesson

DC Collier’s legacy is still with us. His imprint on the village of Ocean Beach cannot be understated. And it’s up to the denizens of OB to keep his memory alive, to appreciate what he gave us – and to appreciate all the efforts into saving what’s left of his 60 acres to the children of the peninsula.

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Editordude: The above is taken from what was originally Part Four of the series on “What is the true birthday of OB and who is its true founder?” written in September 2012 (Here are Parts One, Two, and Three.)

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Avatar Judy Collier March 28, 2021 at 8:06 am

No relation, but loved the story. Thanks for all the research and its artful presentation.

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Avatar Rhonni April 1, 2021 at 6:41 pm

Why did collier junior high become correos. Steve correos wa an artist, which is great, but…..did he found an entire neighborhood?

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie April 2, 2021 at 12:04 pm

Steve Corriea – PLHS Class of 1965 (I believe) – became a world-renown (hand-made?) fine china maker. His china ended up in the Reagan White House. Friends and supporters of his circulated petitions throughout the Peninsula at some point, asking for the name change. Finally, it was changed and it was seen as a bow to the strong and historic Portuguese community in Pt Loma.

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