During the strife, Collins and Dare not only bought a hotel, along with John C. Fisher, whose opera house they would fund, they built San Diego’s first cable railway. At the opening, on June 7, 1890, the San Diego Union called the steam-cable system’s 12 maroon-and-gray cars “an enterprise that would be permanent and…would do much to spread [San Diego’s] fame abroad. It is a magnificent piece of work and has cost an immense sum of money.”
No one questioned where the money came from, and Collins and Dare’s credibility soared. An incident later that year elevated Collins to even higher realms.
At noon, on September 1, 1890, four Portuguese fishermen watched a 22-foot, sloop-rigged yacht struggle up the channel near North Island. The tide was going out. A 20-knot wind blew hard from the west. The masts snapped from side to side. The canvas sails ruffled. Then a stronger gust slammed the yacht nose-first into the gray, choppy waters. The white hull disappeared.
The boat sank so fast, a fisherman said, it looked as if “an unseen force from the bottom of the blue” had yanked it down.
When the men reached the site, the deepest part of the channel near buoy #2, they found no trace of the yacht or its passengers.
An hour later Ed Page, a returning fisherman, thought he spotted a large woman’s body, tangled in thick kelp, near the buoy. As he tried to free the corpse, a smaller body rose to the surface. A girl’s eyes, dead as diamonds, stared up at him from the brine.
“Badly shocked,” he released the woman’s foot and “departed as rapidly as the breeze from the open sea could blow him” (Sun).
The drowned woman was Fannie Collins. Earlier that morning, William P. Hay had phoned, inviting her and the children to sail on the bay in the Petrel, one of the finest yachts around. Hay brought his wife to Hunt’s boathouse, where they joined the Collinses and Maggie Wallace, daughter of their Presbyterian minister.
“Better take in some of that sail,” Hunt warned Hay, pointing to droves of whitecaps, “double-reef it, even.”
“I’m a pretty good hand at sailing,” Hay replied. “I guess she’ll go all right.”
All six passengers drowned.
Search parties on foot and horseback combed the coast. Since the tide was going out, the bodies might drift to the Silver Strand, or as far north as Pacific Beach. Tugboats dragged the channel with 600-foot ropes, weighted with lead and lined with grab-hooks. They found the yacht, opened parasols, a picnic basket full of sandwiches, and the mutilated body of William Hay. Those of his wife, the Collins children, and Maggie Wallace were never recovered.
When tragedy struck, J.W. Collins was in San Francisco. San Diegans worried how he would take the news that his whole family had “crossed the gold river of death” (Sun). “Mr. Collins is a gentleman of a domestic disposition.” He “would freely give his own life rather than [his family] should receive injury.”
Dare sent a message to friends in the Bay Area: tell Collins that Fannie has died in a boating accident, but don’t tell him “all the particulars” — that young Mary and John drowned as well. “Few men could bear such a shock.”
A search party found Fannie’s body. Only her half-open eyes showed signs of a struggle. Her smile remained “as plainly visible upon the countenance of the corpse as upon the face of Mrs. Collins during her happiest moments in life” (Union).
Before boarding a train to San Diego, Collins telegraphed Dare: purchase the finest lot in Mt. Hope Cemetery, and make all arrangements for interment.
Collins’s train stopped at the A Street crossing, where Dare, John C. Fisher, California National President William Collier, and others met and drove him in a carriage to the Brewster Hotel. On the way, they revealed the extent of his loss. Then they took him home, where Fannie’s remains — surrounded by wreaths, sprays of white roses, and floral stars — lay in an open casket. “How life-like she looks,” one of the men said, as Collins sunk to his knees.
Outside the house, and on street corners throughout the city, prayer vigils, often among strangers, lasted for hours. A rich black cloth, parted to the sides by two large white ribbons, draped over the entrance to the California National Bank.
“Nothing has ever occurred in the history of San Diego County” (Union), “which made so deep an impression upon all people and drew them together so closely.”
What can you say to Collins and Rev. Wallace and his wife, the Sun asked, “to ease the awful load that they must bear through life, and convince them that underneath are the everlasting arms?”
In a time of grave, relentless loss, Collins and the Wallace’s unthinkable suffering gave San Diegans an outlet for mourning, and Collins astonished the citizenry with his quiet strength.
“He bears his grief,” wrote the Sun, “like one man in ten thousand! Few men ever drank a more bitter cup and bore it with so much fortitude.”
The Union: “Universal sympathy was expressed throughout the city for the bereaved man, whose great kindness, quiet, simple, unostentatious manner and unwavering loyalty to San Diego’s interests have greatly endeared him to all. With businessmen his just and honorable methods have made him a rock of reliance.”
Unable to remain there a minute longer, Collins sold the Florence Heights house and moved into Room 39 at the Brewster Hotel.
A short time later, William Collier, President of the California National Bank, stepped down. Collins became the new chief executive by unanimous vote. He maintained his public face, keeping alive the legend of his generosity, but was often away on business and, friends noted, became psychologically absent as well.
On September 21, 1891, the California National Bank opened its books for local newspapers: “Capital paid in, $500,000; Authorized capital, $1,000,000; Surplus, $100,000” — figures that made it one of the strongest financial institutions in Southern California.