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THE FALL. On September 1, 1890, while he was in San Francisco on business, John W. Collins’s wife Fannie, daughter Mary, son Johnny, and three others drowned in a boating accident off Point Loma. “Nothing has ever occurred in the history of San Diego County,” wrote the Union, “which made so deep an impression upon all people and drew them together so closely.”

Collins, cashier at the California National Bank, had become one of the city’s most trusted citizens. His “great kindness, quiet, simple, unostentatious manner and unwavering loyalty to San Diego’s interests greatly endeared him to all” (Union). And there was no family more beloved. For days after the accident, strangers formed impromptu prayer vigils on street corners. As he rode south by train, many feared that Collins, the “rock of reliance,” couldn’t withstand the tragedy.

Instead, Collins responded “like one man in ten thousand!” (San Diego Sun). “Few men ever drank a more bitter cup and bore it with so much fortitude.”

A year later Collins — who, some say, never recovered from the loss of his family — again boarded a train from San Francisco to San Diego, this time to face public havoc: California National Bank, where he had become president, was closing its doors “temporarily.” Deposits had dwindled, and the bank, a Gibraltar amid rapid economic erosion, couldn’t back its notes or assets.

A crowd formed around a handwritten note taped to the window. A man read the note aloud and, when others arrived, read it again. What’re their liabilities? Temporarily? Where’s management? Fists pummeled the stately double-doors. When no one came out, a man shouted, “What about the other banks?” Investors scattered.

The day before California National closed, vice president David Dare went to Europe. He had to leave the health-seeker’s mecca, he claimed, “on account of its climate.” He took wife Adele and, the bank discovered later, $200,000 in embezzled funds.

On November 13, the Cheyenne National Bank of Wyoming, also managed by Collins and Dare, shut down. Hearing of the San Diego failure, its largest depositors demanded their money. Cash on hand vanished in an hour. “The entire fault rests with Collins,” wrote the New York Times, “to notify [the bank] that there was trouble in San Diego.” The Cheyenne National cashier, a man named Beard, committed suicide. Townsfolk read the act as a confession of guilt.

California National closed officially in February 1892. Projects that Collins and Dare had funded, including San Diego’s first cable-car system and the Fisher Opera House, folded, along with stores and other apparently stable businesses. Families lost life savings overnight, and San Diego dove into a depression, writes Jerry MacMullen, “which made the 1930s look like a pink-tea affair.”

Less than a month after California National closed, George Golden walked to the end of the Spreckels wharf. Earlier that day, he told a friend, “Sometimes I feel like jumping into the bay and saying, ‘Here goes nothing.’ ” On the advice of a Wells Fargo clerk, as the local economy crumbled, Golden put his life savings in California National. He lost everything. Golden sat at the wharf’s edge and read a handful of letters. After he finished one, he slowly tore it up and watched the fragments flutter in the breeze. Around 5:00 p.m., Golden put a pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

“San Diego is a good place to stay away from,” a note in Golden’s small diary read. “Nothing but swindlers of any use in this cursed place. I served in the Navy during the war, and was at the taking of Richmond. I lost $1300 in that bank, one hour before it closed.”

Seen in hindsight, David Dare’s sleights of hand grew clearer, then obvious. He had always been a Mr. Hyde to Collins’s Dr. Jekyll. Dare, who had the persuasive skills of an orator, promised “wildcat” loans and interest-bearing certificates at 12 percent. He offered prospective shareholders an option: when California National got on its feet, he would repurchase shares at 110 percent of the sales price. And when California National overextended itself, Dare grabbed funds he’d been embezzling for several months and hopped a ship to Europe for his “health.”

As Dare and wife Adele crossed the Pacific, the New York Times reported years later, he tried to throw her overboard. Adele escaped, hid out, and took the first steamer west. To reenter the U.S. without being arrested, Adele obtained immunity from prosecution. She moved to Colorado Springs, got a divorce, and shunned the spotlight. But over the years, bits of information trickled from her. Collins had lent Dare the money to build a castlelike structure on Cheyenne’s “Millionaire’s Row.” Dare, a photographer and sign-painter, had possessed only $7000 when he came to San Diego. A rumor, also attributed to Adele, alleged that her husband “ran out” on Collins.

Dare fled to Italy, grew a long beard, and schemed his way through Egypt, the Holy Land (and may have built the first railroad from Jericho to Jerusalem), and Greece, where he ran a prosperous rug business. Dare died a wealthy man in Athens in December 1909. He always denied being a fugitive from justice.

And Collins? San Diegans couldn’t believe he’d commit such a swindle. “From what I know of the situation,” the Sun quoted an unnamed investor, “I am sure that Mr. Collins will be able to clear himself of any complicity in the loss of the $200,000.”

D.C. Collier, former president of the bank: “The disaster is simply due to a liberal management which stopped at nothing for the benefit of San Diego.”

Collins couldn’t believe it either. Pallid and dejected, he told a reporter that “During my absence from the city, someone set afloat a malignant rumor among the Eastern stockholders that Mr. Dare had fled to Europe, and I to Australia.” Investors panicked. The bank closed, as did Collins and Dare’s savings-and-loan in the same building, which allegedly had $277,000 on its books but only $6250 on hand.

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