THE RISE. In 1880, San Diego County had 4961 official residents. By early 1887, an estimated 30,000 newcomers had arrived, with thousands more on the way. Immigrants, health-seekers, and speculators came to buy property for houses, hotels, churches, warehouses. White wooden stakes, ribbons flapping in the breeze, marked out acres of lots for sale. Mini-orchards of saplings sprung up, as did frames of future structures, the construction blocking city streets and prompting detours. Hammers pounded like the pulse of a giddy child.
Gold didn’t lure the multitudes. It was land, but the frenzy was the same. Buy low, sell high, promise higher returns. San Diego’s “Boom of the Eighties” was on.
In October, 1887, an ad in the Union boasted that, although the city now had at least 50,000 residents, “We may say that San Diego has a population of 150,000 people, only they are not all here yet.”
Most came by railroad, which first reached San Diego in 1885. Transcontinental trains ran 22 mph: Easterners could pull up stakes and be in Southern California in five days and nights. Thousands, then tens of thousands, stuffed every hotel and spare room in San Diego — the latter renting for an unheard of $50 a month. City officials began urging landowners to include rental properties among their developments.
New villages emerged. Some, like Richland (east of National City) and Glen-Barham (east of Encinitas) were “paper towns” that never materialized. But during the boom, other platted sites grew into Oceanside, Chula Vista, La Jolla (also called La Jolla Park), Pacific Beach (founded in 1887), Fallbrook, Escondido (laid out in 1885), Lakeside, and La Mesa.
San Diego saw its first electric lights, first electric streetcar, first modern dam, at Sweetwater. Growth wasn’t just bullish, it felt invincible. “The boom is based on the simple fact,” said an ad in the Union, “that hereabouts the Good Lord has created conditions of climate and health and beauty such as can be found nowhere else, and until every acre of this earthly paradise is occupied, the influx will continue.”
Toward the end of 1887, the boom showed signs of busting, to wary eyes at least. To attract buyers, auction sales began offering free lunches accompanied by brass bands. The land rush slowed. In November 1887, 18 million feet of lumber arrived at the Santa Fe Wharf. Most of it spent the winter in tall, molding piles near the waterfront.
In April 1888, lots that had skied from $25 per front-square-foot to $2500 went unsold. Of the estimated 1000 homes built, so many were vacant that owners let families live rent-free, just to have occupants.
“The boom did not burst,” wrote historian James M. Guinn, “it gradually shriveled up.” But even wide-eyed speculators could see that the bottom had fallen out. A second frenzy set in, more manic than the first: SELL!
“Expanded values deflated like pricked balloons,” wrote Glenn S. Dumke. “Unlike other booms, the victims were often intelligent men of property, and sometimes the heaviest losers were the people who carefully kept out of the excitement during its early phases and then allowed themselves to be drawn in just in time for the crash.”
Back in 1887, between July and September, 5000 people came by train to San Diego. Two of them, John W. Collins and David D. Dare, would inspire visions of a turnaround.
They hailed from Cheyenne, Wyoming, where they ran the prosperous Cheyenne National Bank. With unnamed Eastern funding and the city’s support, they would build a similar, Gibraltar-solid bank in San Diego: the California National. In the same building, they’d also offer a savings and loan.
Dapper of dress and speech, Dare came with his wife Adele. The soft-spoken, reflective Collins brought wife Fannie, daughter Mary, age 8, and son John, age 6. Both families stayed at the posh Brewster Hotel, at Fourth and C.
California National Bank opened, amid the economic slowdown, on January 9, 1888. By December 31, 1889, after three banks went under and San Diego land values hit hard-pan, California National had flourished: over $1 million in paid-up capital, undivided profits, and lines of deposit. Clients appreciated the courteous service and generous loans. The bank’s massive iron pillars, at the northeast corner of Fourth and D (Broadway) became a symbol of trust and hope.
Dare and Collins moved in such different circles it amazed people that they were partners. Dare, the bank’s Vice President, had a castle on “Millionaire’s Row” in Cheyenne. He ordered the construction of an even larger one: a 16-room, $40,000, brownstone-turreted extravaganza at Fifth and Juniper. He numbered Wild Bill Hickock among his pals and spent many an evening at Jesse Shepard’s mystical Villa Montezuma. A world famous singer-pianist — and world class charlatan, to many — Shepard regaled guests with concerts and magic shows.
On December 17, 1889, Shepard traded Villa Montezeuma — “the most ornately finished and artistically furnished house in the city” (Sun) — to David Dare for the castle in Wyoming. Neither structure, it turned out, stood on stable financial ground. Like Shepard, San Diegans learned later that Dare was a relentless self-promoter who financed vast projects with wispy promises.
John W. Collins purchased an attractive bay view home, at First and Kalmia, in Florence Heights. “Genial and charming” (San Diego Sun), he worked as California National’s Cashier — was, in effect, the bank’s public face — and in time became “universally loved” (Union). Fannie, his wife of 13 years, was “one of the most kindly, loveable women in the city, widely noted for her sweetness of disposition.” In conjunction with the United Presbyterian Church, where the family worshipped regularly, Fannie ran several charities.
As Dare and Collins thrived, the city crumbled. Between 1888 and 1890, frantic San Diegans withdrew over $2 million from local banks, causing several to default. Property values plummeted even more. Every street had at least one “For Sale” sign, the price often slashed and a lower one painted above it. Newcomers, promised paradise, fled. By the end of 1888, San Diego’s estimated population of 50,000 shrunk to 16,000. The city’s suicide rate — from the crash of ’88 through the Great Panic of ’93 and beyond — ranked second in the nation behind San Francisco.