4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

Billy Carlson, the boy mayor of San Diego

“Every grain of sand that is part of San Diego is dear to me.”

William H. Carlson (1864-1937). The Union article called Billy "the last and most pertinacious of the blatant and shallow band of adventurers who fattened on false pretenses during the boom."
William H. Carlson (1864-1937). The Union article called Billy "the last and most pertinacious of the blatant and shallow band of adventurers who fattened on false pretenses during the boom."

On the evening of November 6, 1886, a noisy torchlight procession strode up Fifth Avenue, replete with fireworks and a brass band. A San Diego Union reporter was on the scene and noted that the motley crew was composed of “Democrats and boys” and also “bummers” who had been paid four bits to participate and who became carried away with the festivities to the extent of brawling and tossing Roman candles through nearby residents’ open windows. The worst part was that the rowdy group, stirred up by the gall of its leader, twenty-two-year-old Billy Carlson, marched right up to the home of Alonzo Horton, the “father of San Diego” himself. There they proceeded to light a bonfire while Billy delivered an oration on how he had been squelched by the illustrious Mr. Horton in his efforts to become a delegate to the Republican Convention in Los Angeles.

Ocean Beach celebrates its first anniversary in 1888. Ocean Beach had been known as Mussel Beds, a popular picnic spot of brush-covered hills and a short stretch of beach.

“A harmless amusement,” concluded the Union reporter, “and since there is no law against a man making an ass of himself, we see no reason to blame Mr. Carlson.”

Local journalists in those days tended to regard Carlson with that kind of amused indulgence, slapping the hand of the young upstart who, only a year earlier, had arrived in San Diego to open up a real-estate office downtown. His sole credential was a job as a page in the California Senate, but he talked grandly of building a resort hotel near the international border that would attract visitors from around the world. For all the disparaging journalism he inspired. Carlson never seemed to mind. He just smiled on, earning the epithet “Smiling Billy.” As one reporter put it, “You can sail into Billy like the old Harry, and the next time he meets you, he will set 'em up. That’s Billy’s strong point, he never gets mad.”

Ocean Beach's Cliff House, built by Carlson & Higgins in 1888. But where was the San Diego, Roseville, & Ocean Beach Railroad?

But there was no reason for Carlson to become irked with the people who were making his name a household word in San Diego, who would help him, within the next six years, to smile his way through the sale of thousands of lots in San Diego County (some in rather godforsaken areas). His notoriety would enable him to win election to the offices of county assessor, state assemblyman, and mayor of San Diego, in that order, and leave time to pass the bar exam and raise money for a proposed leg to a transcontinental railroad line linking New York to San Diego.

Evidence of the San Diego real-estate bust, 1889. An economic depression swept over the nation, and Southern California was particularly hard hit.

In some ways, William H. Carlson seems to have been the prototype for the San Diego politician. He had the eager devotion to San Diego of Pete Wilson, the unswerving optimism of Mike Gotch, and the bounce-back ability of Roger Hedgecock. In addition, he was possessed of such inexhaustible energy that his earlier chroniclers wondered, admiringly, when he slept. One historian even suggested that a bust of Carlson be placed in a San Diego Hall of Fame, alongside those of Alonzo Horton, E.S. Babcock, and John Spreckels, men who shaped the city. In retrospect, Carlson would be disqualified from such an honor by his later real-estate scams and a tenure in federal prison. He never lost his confidence, though, or his expansive rhetoric, which allowed him even in the last decade of his life to speak glowingly of San Diego and his part in its development: “I looked off at the mass of lights on the ships in the harbor, beyond them to the lights on North Island, and, honestly, it made a lump in my throat. That bay at night was nothing but a black waste, in my early days here. Some of us dreamed ahead and saw the reflection of those lights, but we were laughed at. And now it has all come true! I've seen it!"

In the 1880s, Carlson was a tall, handsome young man with clear blue eyes, curly hair, and a handlebar mustache. He was always immaculately dressed — dark suits and frock coat in the winter, cream-colored suits in the summer, a carnation always in his buttonhole. Still, he would roll up his sleeves to pry an errant rail tie back into place, particularly if reporters were present, and it is reported that once, on seeing a dog run over by a wagon, “without hesitating a second, he ran out to the middle of the street, picked up the badly injured animal and carried it, bleeding profusely, to a doctor.” No wonder he caught the eye of the beautiful Carmen Ferrer.

Carmen was the daughter of Colonel Manuel Ferrer, a distinguished officer of the Mexican Army, who opened up a popular saloon in Old Town upon his retirement. Carlson wooed and won her, and the two married in Mexico City in 1887. It is unlikely that the couple had an extended honeymoon. since this was also the year of Carlson’s first big real-estate bonanza — the opening of the town-site that he named Ocean Beach. Colonel Ferrer’s capital may have been a handy resource in the acquisition of the tract of land that Carlson and his partner, Frank Higgins, acquired.

Up to that time. Ocean Beach had been known as Mussel Beds, a popular picnic spot of brush-covered hills and a short stretch of beach. It was a fun spot, but no one thought of living there except the old recluse. Captain Thomas, w ho had a shack on the beach. Carlson & Higgins forecast great changes for the sleepy spot; and Carlson brushed off the complaint that the place was too difficult to get to by announcing plans for the San Diego, Roseville, & Ocean Beach Railway, which would be constructed within a year. In the meantime, one could board a stage from Carlson & Higgins’s downtown office any day at 8:00 a.m. or 1:00 p.m. Round-trip tickets cost fifty cents, with a tour of lots thrown in for free. If you were coming up from National City, there was Carlson’s ferry to take to Roseville for only fifteen cents — and it had an "elegant cabin with piano. Parties are encouraged." The traveler could take a stage from Roseville, near San Diego Harbor, or hike over the peninsula to Ocean Beach. Whatever the route, it was worth the effort, for unbeknown to those picnickers, the Garden of Eden lay under their feet, “lost to the world until Carlson & Higgins discovered Ocean Beach,” according to a local ad. “Visit the wonderful water well at Ocean Beach,” the ad continued, probably referring to a well sunk by Captain Thomas. “San Diego city can now boast of the purest and finest drinking water in the world, found in inexhaustible quantities in Ocean Beach."

Carlson kept a sample of the “pure, soft water” in his downtown office, located at Fifth Avenue between E and F streets, and offered it to potential buyers, along with the news that one of his customers had discovered gold nuggets in the soft sandstone cliffs and that he was sinking an oil well since there were great indications of that resource also. (Nine years later, in 1896, another well was bored by the San Diego Gas and Oil Company with city funds, which actually did yield some oil before it ran dry.)

On April 24, 1887, the day from which Ocean Beach is dating its centennial this year, Carlson & Higgins threw its first Mussel Roast, selling lots at sixty dollars each — twenty dollars down and the rest payable in a year. The City Guard Band entertained, and Carlson provided free mussels, ice cream, and bathing suits. Some 2500 lots are said to have sold that day. If that seems like a lot of people to have reached Ocean Beach by horse and buggy, remember that the boom period was reaching the zenith and the population of San Diego had grown from 5000 in 1885 to 35,000 in 1887. It would peak out at 40,000 in 1888. Four months later, Carlson & Higgins gave a second barbecue and sold 4000 lots, even though the price was raised to $300 a lot. The partners were jubilant and immediately proceeded with construction of the Cliff House, a grand Victorian structure completed in January 1888. The following April, with the proud hotel looming from a cliff over the Pacific, Carlson & Higgins celebrated Founders Day, the “founders" being themselves and Alonzo Horton. Carlson and a few select peers went aloft in a hot-air balloon while the band played on.

But where was the San Diego, Roseville, & Ocean Beach Railroad that was supposed to carry all those lucky suburbanites to their cottages by the sea? Carlson was having difficulty with that. Skeptics began to mutter that it was all speculation, that he had created a paper railroad for a paper town. But Carlson rose to the challenge. The railroad’s first run was described by an old-time resident, Herbert Hensley, in his memoirs.

“Nevertheless on April 17, 1888, a few cars pulled by a dummy locomotive (all borrowed) successfully made the run clear to Ocean Beach, although it had, as a matter of fact, been on the way nearly four days. Most of the difficulty had been getting across the marshy land between Old Town and Roseville. Owing to the hastily made and imperfect roadbed, with ties few and far between, the train was constantly getting mired. Then could William H. Carbon, his frock coat doffed and white shirt-sleeves gleaming in the dark, be seen in the forefront of every effort, digging in the mud and lugging ties with the best of them. Finally, about 8 p.m., Billy got his motor going again on the far side of the marsh and sped merrily on his way. ‘Sped,’ though, is hardly the word; for the not-then-numerous citizens of Ocean Beach had mostly gone to bed when, its whistle tooting shrilly, the little train rattled down through the draw into their midst — around 1 a.m. The inhabitants turned out in great enthusiasm, fired guns and lit a big bonfire."

The line was subject to boggy breakdowns, however, and having made his point. Carlson resorted to his prior transportation — stageline and ferry — after a few months.

High with the success of their Ocean Beach transactions, Carlson and his partner, Frank Higgins, laid out the town of Monument City. It was located in the southwesternmost corner of the U.S. (near the present San Ysidro), where in 1869 a monument to friendly relations between the U.S. and Mexico had been erected. In 1888 they renamed the town International City, and promising a hotel more lavish than the Cliff House, they began selling lots priced between $100 and $500.

Then an economic depression swept over the nation, and Southern California was particularly hard hit. The tide of incoming people hit its peak in 1888 and turned abruptly, rushing out as fast as it had come in. The population leveled out at 16,000 in 1890, and “For Sale” signs popped up all over San Diego County. Banks began to fail, and lots and homesteads were abandoned as people fled back to the Midwest.

There was panic in San Diego. Frank Higgins collapsed under the stress, and his family sent him to a San Francisco mental institution, where he committed suicide in 1889. But Carlson was made of sterner stuff. He hopped a tram from Los Angeles to New York, where he persuaded financier William Graves to buy up the Ocean Beach property for $400,000, with a clause attached committing Carlson to the completion of the Ocean Beach Railway, rerouted and renamed the San Diego and Eastern Terminal Railway Company. Graves put up an additional $280,000 to extend the line from Roseville to Del Mar, bypassing Ocean Beach, which would lie dormant for two decades.

The Terminal Railroad became the butt of jokes as Carlson worked frantically toward its completion, supervising his crew night and day. In "Carlson’s Midnight Ride," the San Diego Union told of him driving a locomotive down D Street to his newly laid line. Just before they reached the Santa Fe tracks, “the motor got dizzy and ran off. It took about three-quarters of an hour to right her. The car was detached, and in the midst of this work, the supply of coal and water gave out. Billy smiled as though he had the Spreckels bunkers at command and skipped across the road, returning with a sack of coal and bucket of water enough to fill a boiler.” A Santa Fe agent ordered Carlson not to cross their tracks, but when he ran for help, Carlson and his own crew managed to get across the tracks, with the help of some eighteen-foot braces, just in time to avoid collision with a road engine arriving from National City.

Two days later, Carlson’s second child, his first son, was born. The Union reported, “The youngster at once inquired about railroad matters and will be made General Manager of the Terminal in a few minutes." The papers could spoof all they wanted, but a week later, despite a setback due to vandalism, Carlson’s Terminal line opened to a short run along the waterfront. More than 400 people took the ride on October 13, 1890, and the Union conceded that “good nature was everywhere, and that has been Billy Carlson's trump card, combined with a bulldog tenacity.... Public sympathy is with Mr. Carlson, because the people believe that his purpose is to promote the welfare of this city and that if he ever has the means, he will do much.”

Carlson was already doing much without means. He had taken out a franchise for another railroad, and when he wasn’t out fixing the Eastern Terminal, he traveled to New York and Salt Lake City to find backers for his proposed San Diego and Yuma Line. Although there was a transcontinental hookup to San Diego already, it plummeted north to Barstow and beyond. Carlson thought that a train straight to Arizona would be just the thing to perk up the city’s economy.

It was his trip to Salt Lake that brought Carlson to his first scrape with trouble. In his prospectus to the elders of Salt Lake City, he reported as officers of his railway company names of San Diegans who had neither been informed of their status nor indeed who had any connection with the railroad company. One, a Mr. Church, wrote an indignant letter to the Union, which had already received a letter from the Utah, Nevada & California Railway, inquiring if it were true that Carlson’s line owned the depot in San Diego and most of the harbor right-of-way and if all other railroads would have to pay tribute if they entered the city.

The Union decried the “atrocious impudence” of Carlson and claimed that he “has no franchise of any sort for a large part of the alleged railway whose alleged stock he is trying to sell. He has simply strung some ties and laid some rails on other people's land and then gone off to New York and Salt Lake to try to sell the results of his cheeky trespass.... The Union is of the opinion that Carlson's gall has been tolerated long enough and that he and his confederate Graves should be sat down upon.”

While the Union sat on Carlson, the Pacific Coast Steamship Company tore up a considerable portion of track that had been laid for the new line, claiming the ties were theirs and had not been paid for. When the Salt Lake officials heard this news and received a denouncing telegram from the Union editor, the deal was off, and they demanded the money back from subscriptions already sold.

In response, Carlson fired off a letter to the Pacific Steamship Company, stating, “You are hereby notified to relay the rails and fittings taken by your firm from our roadbed ... or you will be proceeded against under the laws of this State.” The letter was published in the local papers, and though no lawsuit followed, the tone of righteous indignation had been set.

When asked about his trip to Salt Lake City, Carlson denied all wrongdoing. “I have had a whole lot of trouble formerly, but the deal I got in Salt Lake was the worst of all. My plan of sale of stock was good and legitimate as could be. My prospectus did not state what was not true and susceptible of proof, and when the telegram from here reached the city, I was as near success as I could possibly be.... I was pointed out as an adventurer and a first-class fraud. I proved, however, that I was not by paying all money back which had been received and by remaining in Salt Lake until I had seen a complimentary notice concerning me copied into every Salt Lake paper.”

Carlson went on to say that he had procured promises from other interested backers and that a transcontinental line would soon be started. He declined, however, to name his new supporters. “Who is it? Well, I won’t go any further, and I suspect I have gone too far already, but ten days will give you a more striking example of what I mean.”

The public began to rally around him as a man who had tried to serve the city only to be betrayed by the big moneyed interests. One citizen wrote to the Union in his defense: “In this age ‘nerve’ and rustle often accomplish what lazy, idle capital fails to, and Mr. Carlson is today, although a poor man. vastly superior and more valuable as a public spirited citizen than many of the money vendors who sit around like fat spiders and absorb per cent and extortionate rents without contributing a dollar — only where they see two per cent a month coming back.... While he may be in some ways visionary or ultra, he would infuse a little life into the dull conservatives that got their start by happening to hold real estate that energetic men like Carlson made valuable."

With popular support, 1890 was clearly the year to start his sprint up the political ladder, and in late fall, he announced his candidacy for county assessor, winning handily. In 1891 he watched the remnants of his International City wash away in the Tia Juana River Valley flood and spent the rainy days studying law.

Carlson launched the first Cabrillo Day on September 28, 1892. It was carefully planned but not well executed. When “Cabrillo” sailed up to Ballast Point, the local dignitaries rushed out on a creaky wharf to welcome him, crowding it until it collapsed and sent them sprawling into the mud. The public laughed at another of Billy’s schemes gone astray but elected him assemblyman anyway and was pleasantly surprised when the fledgling legislator passed the bar exam the day after his election.

In Sacramento Carlson made enough friends in both the Assembly and Senate to pass a $200,000 seawall construction bill for San Diego Harbor. The entrance to the harbor, between North Island and Point Loma, was shoaling up badly, and army engineers determined that sand washing in from the Tia Juana River threatened to make the channel impassable. Although Carlson’s bill was vetoed by the governor, it eventually became law, and Carlson is credited with its instigation.

At that time, the legislature convened every other year. In off-year 1893, Carlson decided to run for mayor of San Diego on an independent ticket. Aside from sniping at one of his four opponents, Adolph Gasser, whom he blamed for persuading the governor to veto the seawall bill, Carlson threw himself into the race with complete optimism. Historian W.E. Smythe chronicled his campaign in the History of San Diego:

"If there was a voter in San Diego whom he did not personally interview, or a man who wanted anything that he did not promise to secure for him, neither have since come to light. As soon as Carlson got into the mayor's chair, there were to be new electric car lines on every street, hotels fitted up a la Edward Bellamy, lines of steamships to every port on earth, transcontinental railroads galore, the park was to be improved at once, everybody was to have plenty of work at the highest wages, and, in short, the millennium was to come then and there."

On election day, Carlson hired a brass band that moved from one polling place to another in a large hack, on which was lettered “San Diego, Phoenix, and Chicago.” This referred to the new San Diego & Phoenix Railway, Carlson’s third railway, which he would incorporate within a month. For Carlson had no intention of abandoning his railroad activities just because he was mayor; in fact, it was the only issue alluded to in his acceptance speech after winning the election with twice as many votes as any other candidate. After the perfunctory thanks, he stated, “...With a direct line of railroad east to Phoenix, San Diego will soon become the great commercial city she has been destined to be."

During his first year as mayor, Carlson and his wife went to Mexico, where they were received by President Porfirio Diaz and given land concessions for his San Diego-to- Phoenix line. Upon his return, he was congratulated, he said, by New York capitalists who “stood ready to furnish the money to complete the balance of the railroad in ten-mile sections as soon as the first ten-mile section is completed.... I will now go ahead with all my might to get the first ten miles through.”

At the end of his first two-year term, however. Mayor Carlson had to admit that the work was going slowly. “True, there is but one man at work with pick and shovel working toward Yuma," he said (Yuma was now just a stop on the way to Phoenix), “but the good work still goes on and will until the railroad is completed.”

In other matters, the city government, unlike the rest of the economy, was operating in the black, paving streets, and building bridges throughout San Diego. One area where the city saved money was the salary for mayor, which was six dollars a year. Carlson complained that he had lost $293,000 in trying to bring a railroad to San Diego, that he had had to sell his home, and that he wore a nickel watch on a two-bit chain, instead of the fine gold watch and chain of the boom days. One reason he was nicknamed the “Boy Mayor” (he was only twenty-nine when elected) was his pouting posture when addressing the city council on the issue of his salary. They responded by saying if he did not like it, he could resign.

“But I did not resign,” said the mayor proudly. “And I have done my duty on behalf of the people without fear of the city council."

The crowd he was addressing on the steps of city hall cheered, and he won a second term. During this term, he complained that every time he vetoed a city council measure, the council members would pass it anyway “without a word of explanation.” He also protested loudly when he felt city workmen were not paid a living wage, a protest some critics unkindly suggested was voiced for the sole purpose of gaining the Knights of Labor support.

To distance himself from a hostile city council, Carlson kept other projects going. He began to speculate on land in the Imperial Valley, an interest that would someday be his downfall. And he became entranced with a popular idea in that day: harnessing the ocean’s energy. Carlson and his father-in-law, Manuel Ferrer, were looking at False Bay (now Mission Bay) one day from the vantage point of what is now Dog Beach. “A wise Providence has created False Bay for some use,” Billy decided and formed the San Diego Power and Electrical Company. The idea was to place huge water wheels in the channel of the bay that would, with the help of the tides, create 5000-horsepower electricity. There were similar projects further down the Ocean Beach coast and in Coronado, where machinery was actually installed. But Carlson’s scheme never got off the drawing board.

Carlson still traveled around the country selling stock in his San Diego-to-Phoenix railway. In 1896 Councilman Olmstead, complaining that the mayor was "cavorting around the country, making a show of himself to the city’s detriment,” introduced a resolution to prorate Carlson’s salary to cover only the time he was in San Diego. The measure never passed, but it stuck in Carlson’s craw; and he decided to run for U.S. Congress. On April. 6, 1896, he announced to the voters of the Seventh District that he would be running on an independent ticket on a platform in support of protective tariffs for grains, a substantial public building in each county seat, and more railroads for California.

Carlson’s main opponent was the Republican incumbent, W.W. Bowers, who had in his own favor a long political career and his brother-in-law, Alonzo Horton.

“Congressman Bowers has been drawing $50,000 a year, and what has he done for San Diego?” asked Carlson, who then answered the question: “Nothing. What we need here is work for every man. Mr. Bowers stands for organized capitalism.” But Carlson had stepped in over his head this time. Bowers had money behind him and could speak articulately of the workings of Congress, his political accomplishments, and his plans for the future. Moreover, he borrowed Carlson’s use of parades and brass bands to spread his views.

On November 28, 1896, the San Diego Record ran the headline: “San Diego has redeemed herself. She has run Bowers way ahead on the ticket and sat on Billy Carlson. The pen is mightier than the sword but the little red rubber stamp does the business every time.” Carlson still had four months left as mayor; he requested funds for a trip to Sacramento and lobbied for money for a state normal school in San Diego. The funding he obtained built what would eventually become San Diego State University.

Carlson counted on winning the congressional seat, and although his name was on the ballot for the 1897 mayoral race, he had thrown his own support to his friend, D.C. Reed, his partner in the San Diego-to-Yuma railroad line, who was also active in the Flume Project, a gravity-driven water trough from Cuyamaca to San Diego. The Union, in its final diatribe against Carlson as mayor, cited this association as proof that he indeed was not pro-labor since he was in support of an out-of-town water project. Nonetheless, voters chose Reed by a wide margin.

The Union article, headlined “The Passing of the Fool,” called Billy "the last and most pertinacious of the blatant and shallow band of adventurers who fattened on false pretenses during the boom.... From his first great scheme — that of irrigating growing crops by planting iceplants between the rows and then treading them down for moisture — down to his latest railroad fake. Carlson has shown the same earmarks — half fool, half fraud.” The article strung together phrases like “fraudulent and insincere,” “false pretense and cunning," "shameless charlatan and betrayer of trust," and ended with, “For Charity’s sake, call him a fool and let him pass.”

The day following the editorial, Carlson presented his own “funeral" in the plaza, with members of the City Guard Band and fireworks on hand. He took a few shots at Coronado developer E.S. Babcock, whom he accused of promising, then reneging the use of his city tracks for the first link of the San Diego-Phoenix rail line. Carlson reminded his fellow citizens that he had been one of the five-member board of trustees eleven years earlier who had "built up" the population of the city from 2500 to 32,000 and had pushed through appropriations for the first city sewer system.

Yet as for his career as an elected politician, it was in fact Carlson's funeral. What's a former mayor who’s just lost a bid for Congress to do? For the next three years, he traveled: first, to Alaska to explore the possibility of a railroad line between Skagway and Frozen Dog. Then, he was back in San Diego, working as a paymaster for the Southern Pacific. He moved to Los Angeles for a while, then was appointed chief of the division of customs in Washington, with the responsibility to review “all matters pertaining to the customs of the islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and all civil affairs relating to those islands as distinguished from matters of a military character.”

In 1900 the Carlsons were back in San Diego, where life took a tragic turn. In June their six-year-old son became ill with a throat ailment and died within a few days. Carlson was subdued for a few months, but by the end of the year, he was writing to his friends from Cuba, where he had been appointed railroad commissioner. His job was to gather statistics for the Cuban Central Railroad, a project said to be backed by the same men who had promised to fund his San Diego-Phoenix road but had failed to win land subsidies. Carlson reported that the opportunities in Cuba were “great" but was back in San Diego within a year.

Shortly thereafter the Carlsons, with their daughter and second son, moved to Los Angeles more or less permanently. Carlson made frequent visits to San Diego where, on some occasions, crowds greeted his train arrival and where he was usually invited to speak at local clubs. It may have been from one of those speeches that W.E. Smythe obtained the notion that Carlson was a successful banker in Los Angeles and included this information in his History of San Diego, published in 1908. That same year, an interesting item appeared in the San Francisco Call: "William H. Carlson, president of the Consolidated Bank of Los Angeles, has been arrested for falsifying the books of the closed institution.”

Carlson had opened up a bank that looked like a legitimate operation in the Chamber of Commerce Building. But one day. there was a bank run. and somehow there was not enough money for withdrawals. Carlson called it an "overdraft problem.” State auditors discovered that the only officers of the bank were Carlson and his wife, and the fancy safe in his office was nothing but a false front camouflaging lath and plaster. So Carlson now had a paper bank to add to his paper towns and paper railways.

He also had the opportunity to practice law for the first time. As he had always run as an independent candidate for office, Carlson now defended himself as his own counsel each time he had to go to court. Evidently his oratory skill had not deserted him, and all charges against him in the bank case were dropped.

Carlson got out of the banking business but not out of trouble. For a few years, things went well, and he made some housing-tract deals in Redondo Beach, the Los Angeles harbor area, Riverside, Pasadena, and San Diego. Then he had another of his great ideas: land sale by mail order. He sent out advertisements announcing that for one dollar down, clients could have a lot, and if the value of the land did not increase twenty-five percent within a year, buyers could have their money back, plus six percent.

In the meantime. Carlson's only surviving son had become a race driver, traveling throughout the country and making quite a name for himself. Then, on the Fourth of July, 1915, as he was participating in a 250-mile race in Tacoma, Washington, his car left the course and crashed, killing him and his mechanic. The death of her second son was too much for Carmen Carlson, and she lapsed into a grief from which she would not fully recover. Carlson responded by suing the Maxwell Motor Car Company for a million dollars, alleging that they had sent his son into the race with defective tires.

During these years, indictments for questionable land dealings were piling up against Carlson, but his place of residence was changing so quickly that they did not catch up with him. Then he showed up in Nogales, Arizona, in 1917, was slapped with a warrant for mail fraud, and extradited to Los Angeles to stand trial. It seems that Carlson “forgot” to pay investors the six percent he had promised when the land he sold them in Niland, Imperial Valley, did not appreciate twenty-five percent within a year. Moreover, as it turned out, Carlson had no legal title to the land.

The reporters who greeted Carlson in Los Angeles noted that he had traded his former natty dress style for a silk- lined khaki suit, a gingham shirt, and cork hat. He said he had been in Mexico raising tomatoes and selling plots of land when he "heard the call of my country [it was the beginning of World War I] and left immediately for the States.” When asked about the pending case he said. “Nothing to it, young man; they claim I misrepresented the value of the Niland lots. The view as to values is merely academic, don’t you know? ... If the matter is ever brought to a trial, wait until I get to that jury!”

But this time, the jury was not persuaded, even though Carlson denied that he had intended to defraud purchasers of his townsite. “I have built half a dozen towns and made a fortune of $500,000 in two separate instances, and I was never accused of fraud,” he said in his defense. “Now I am greatly reduced in wealth, it is true, but no pauper. A man is honest as long as he intends to be honest. If anyone has been defrauded in this case, I am that person, for I have sacrificed almost everything to see my dream of a city on the desert come true.” The jury did not buy this sentimental appeal and found him guilty of mail fraud.

Federal Judge Bledsoe noted that Carlson had promised to repay his clients but remarked that they would probably be dead before they received any payment from him. “I have followed your meteoric career in the promotion of land in Pasadena, Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach, San Diego, and Los Angeles.... For you I have a great deal of sympathy in my heart. I have been a witness of past impediments which you have overcome... but it is incumbent on me as a judge and for the well-being of society to send you to prison.”

On May 18, 1918, Carlson was sent to MacNeil Island to serve a four-year sentence. The following year, his fondest San Diego dream came true — but not for him. John D. Spreckels, after years of buying up small railroad lines and with the use of land conveyances Carlson had won from Mexico, completed the railroad between San Diego and Arizona. How Carlson took this news is not known, but it is clear that he was not adjusting well to 'prison life. That same year, he wrote to President Woodrow Wilson and asked for a pardon, citing poor health and promising once again to repay his clients. He was released from prison in May 1920, after serving two years.

Although the Los Angeles Times reporter who covered the release described Carlson as “broken in spirit and purse,” no such dismal personage appeared before a San Diego group later that year. Speaking of the area in which his land dealings had put him in prison. Carlson said:

“I went to Imperial Valley. It was called New River Valley then — that was in 1893. I organized an expedition to the valley, at a cost to me of $500, and took some pictures of that great region. Then in San Diego., I hired the old Isis Theatre, at a rate of $75, got a band, which cost me $50, and gathered an audience of San Diego people. I told them to go out there and locate, when they could get land free from the government, instead of waiting until it was worth $300 an acre.... And just a few years later, the rush to Imperial Valley actually did take place, and I saw land being sold there for $300 an acre. I claim to be the father of Imperial Valley, and I think the title's rightfully mine.”

Carlson drifted into obscurity during the balance of the Twenties. He was heard from in 1931, when he submitted a claim to back salaries for the years he was Harbor Commissioner in San Diego and was granted over $6000. Apparently, it was not enough to see him through the depression years, for in 1933, after a visit to San Diego, he wrote to the city council asking for a job — any job — that would allow him to spend his last days in San Diego. “Every grain of sand that is part of San Diego is dear to me,” he said. “As I went all over it yesterday, I said to myself. ‘Here I am in Heaven and not allowed to stay. I cannot understand.' ” He claimed that he left San Diego only because he had spent his fortune on the city he had “so ardently toiled for."

“Now again I stand on this, my sixty-ninth birthday, asking for simple work in my dear San Diego in order to be with you and really of you in all your trials and tribulations, depressions and prosperity. May I have that honor, coming from the hearts of the grateful citizens of San Diego whom I know will not want their former mayor for four years, the last of the ‘old guard,’ who laid the foundations of the present great city of San Diego, to suffer a denial of this simple request?"

The council decided not to act in the matter. Only Councilman Goodbody, who remembered the fiery Carlson of the past, pleaded to send the letter to the mayor’s office for consideration and made a motion to that effect. But these were hard times, and the other council members were not interested in helping a has-been mayor with a criminal past. The motion failed, and the letter was filed away. Billy Carlson died in Pasadena, four years later, at the age of seventy-three.

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all

Previous article

San Diego Zen Center – unlikely refuge

Rescue missions rated, downtown's risky BASE jumpers, I lock up my friend, marrying for.a work permit, inherited money and moved to La Jolla Shores
Next Article

Martin Lindsay’s hunt for lost San Diego restaurants

The clown and palm tree meant he was standing in front of the old Chi-Chi Club
William H. Carlson (1864-1937). The Union article called Billy "the last and most pertinacious of the blatant and shallow band of adventurers who fattened on false pretenses during the boom."
William H. Carlson (1864-1937). The Union article called Billy "the last and most pertinacious of the blatant and shallow band of adventurers who fattened on false pretenses during the boom."

On the evening of November 6, 1886, a noisy torchlight procession strode up Fifth Avenue, replete with fireworks and a brass band. A San Diego Union reporter was on the scene and noted that the motley crew was composed of “Democrats and boys” and also “bummers” who had been paid four bits to participate and who became carried away with the festivities to the extent of brawling and tossing Roman candles through nearby residents’ open windows. The worst part was that the rowdy group, stirred up by the gall of its leader, twenty-two-year-old Billy Carlson, marched right up to the home of Alonzo Horton, the “father of San Diego” himself. There they proceeded to light a bonfire while Billy delivered an oration on how he had been squelched by the illustrious Mr. Horton in his efforts to become a delegate to the Republican Convention in Los Angeles.

Ocean Beach celebrates its first anniversary in 1888. Ocean Beach had been known as Mussel Beds, a popular picnic spot of brush-covered hills and a short stretch of beach.

“A harmless amusement,” concluded the Union reporter, “and since there is no law against a man making an ass of himself, we see no reason to blame Mr. Carlson.”

Local journalists in those days tended to regard Carlson with that kind of amused indulgence, slapping the hand of the young upstart who, only a year earlier, had arrived in San Diego to open up a real-estate office downtown. His sole credential was a job as a page in the California Senate, but he talked grandly of building a resort hotel near the international border that would attract visitors from around the world. For all the disparaging journalism he inspired. Carlson never seemed to mind. He just smiled on, earning the epithet “Smiling Billy.” As one reporter put it, “You can sail into Billy like the old Harry, and the next time he meets you, he will set 'em up. That’s Billy’s strong point, he never gets mad.”

Ocean Beach's Cliff House, built by Carlson & Higgins in 1888. But where was the San Diego, Roseville, & Ocean Beach Railroad?

But there was no reason for Carlson to become irked with the people who were making his name a household word in San Diego, who would help him, within the next six years, to smile his way through the sale of thousands of lots in San Diego County (some in rather godforsaken areas). His notoriety would enable him to win election to the offices of county assessor, state assemblyman, and mayor of San Diego, in that order, and leave time to pass the bar exam and raise money for a proposed leg to a transcontinental railroad line linking New York to San Diego.

Evidence of the San Diego real-estate bust, 1889. An economic depression swept over the nation, and Southern California was particularly hard hit.

In some ways, William H. Carlson seems to have been the prototype for the San Diego politician. He had the eager devotion to San Diego of Pete Wilson, the unswerving optimism of Mike Gotch, and the bounce-back ability of Roger Hedgecock. In addition, he was possessed of such inexhaustible energy that his earlier chroniclers wondered, admiringly, when he slept. One historian even suggested that a bust of Carlson be placed in a San Diego Hall of Fame, alongside those of Alonzo Horton, E.S. Babcock, and John Spreckels, men who shaped the city. In retrospect, Carlson would be disqualified from such an honor by his later real-estate scams and a tenure in federal prison. He never lost his confidence, though, or his expansive rhetoric, which allowed him even in the last decade of his life to speak glowingly of San Diego and his part in its development: “I looked off at the mass of lights on the ships in the harbor, beyond them to the lights on North Island, and, honestly, it made a lump in my throat. That bay at night was nothing but a black waste, in my early days here. Some of us dreamed ahead and saw the reflection of those lights, but we were laughed at. And now it has all come true! I've seen it!"

In the 1880s, Carlson was a tall, handsome young man with clear blue eyes, curly hair, and a handlebar mustache. He was always immaculately dressed — dark suits and frock coat in the winter, cream-colored suits in the summer, a carnation always in his buttonhole. Still, he would roll up his sleeves to pry an errant rail tie back into place, particularly if reporters were present, and it is reported that once, on seeing a dog run over by a wagon, “without hesitating a second, he ran out to the middle of the street, picked up the badly injured animal and carried it, bleeding profusely, to a doctor.” No wonder he caught the eye of the beautiful Carmen Ferrer.

Carmen was the daughter of Colonel Manuel Ferrer, a distinguished officer of the Mexican Army, who opened up a popular saloon in Old Town upon his retirement. Carlson wooed and won her, and the two married in Mexico City in 1887. It is unlikely that the couple had an extended honeymoon. since this was also the year of Carlson’s first big real-estate bonanza — the opening of the town-site that he named Ocean Beach. Colonel Ferrer’s capital may have been a handy resource in the acquisition of the tract of land that Carlson and his partner, Frank Higgins, acquired.

Up to that time. Ocean Beach had been known as Mussel Beds, a popular picnic spot of brush-covered hills and a short stretch of beach. It was a fun spot, but no one thought of living there except the old recluse. Captain Thomas, w ho had a shack on the beach. Carlson & Higgins forecast great changes for the sleepy spot; and Carlson brushed off the complaint that the place was too difficult to get to by announcing plans for the San Diego, Roseville, & Ocean Beach Railway, which would be constructed within a year. In the meantime, one could board a stage from Carlson & Higgins’s downtown office any day at 8:00 a.m. or 1:00 p.m. Round-trip tickets cost fifty cents, with a tour of lots thrown in for free. If you were coming up from National City, there was Carlson’s ferry to take to Roseville for only fifteen cents — and it had an "elegant cabin with piano. Parties are encouraged." The traveler could take a stage from Roseville, near San Diego Harbor, or hike over the peninsula to Ocean Beach. Whatever the route, it was worth the effort, for unbeknown to those picnickers, the Garden of Eden lay under their feet, “lost to the world until Carlson & Higgins discovered Ocean Beach,” according to a local ad. “Visit the wonderful water well at Ocean Beach,” the ad continued, probably referring to a well sunk by Captain Thomas. “San Diego city can now boast of the purest and finest drinking water in the world, found in inexhaustible quantities in Ocean Beach."

Carlson kept a sample of the “pure, soft water” in his downtown office, located at Fifth Avenue between E and F streets, and offered it to potential buyers, along with the news that one of his customers had discovered gold nuggets in the soft sandstone cliffs and that he was sinking an oil well since there were great indications of that resource also. (Nine years later, in 1896, another well was bored by the San Diego Gas and Oil Company with city funds, which actually did yield some oil before it ran dry.)

On April 24, 1887, the day from which Ocean Beach is dating its centennial this year, Carlson & Higgins threw its first Mussel Roast, selling lots at sixty dollars each — twenty dollars down and the rest payable in a year. The City Guard Band entertained, and Carlson provided free mussels, ice cream, and bathing suits. Some 2500 lots are said to have sold that day. If that seems like a lot of people to have reached Ocean Beach by horse and buggy, remember that the boom period was reaching the zenith and the population of San Diego had grown from 5000 in 1885 to 35,000 in 1887. It would peak out at 40,000 in 1888. Four months later, Carlson & Higgins gave a second barbecue and sold 4000 lots, even though the price was raised to $300 a lot. The partners were jubilant and immediately proceeded with construction of the Cliff House, a grand Victorian structure completed in January 1888. The following April, with the proud hotel looming from a cliff over the Pacific, Carlson & Higgins celebrated Founders Day, the “founders" being themselves and Alonzo Horton. Carlson and a few select peers went aloft in a hot-air balloon while the band played on.

But where was the San Diego, Roseville, & Ocean Beach Railroad that was supposed to carry all those lucky suburbanites to their cottages by the sea? Carlson was having difficulty with that. Skeptics began to mutter that it was all speculation, that he had created a paper railroad for a paper town. But Carlson rose to the challenge. The railroad’s first run was described by an old-time resident, Herbert Hensley, in his memoirs.

“Nevertheless on April 17, 1888, a few cars pulled by a dummy locomotive (all borrowed) successfully made the run clear to Ocean Beach, although it had, as a matter of fact, been on the way nearly four days. Most of the difficulty had been getting across the marshy land between Old Town and Roseville. Owing to the hastily made and imperfect roadbed, with ties few and far between, the train was constantly getting mired. Then could William H. Carbon, his frock coat doffed and white shirt-sleeves gleaming in the dark, be seen in the forefront of every effort, digging in the mud and lugging ties with the best of them. Finally, about 8 p.m., Billy got his motor going again on the far side of the marsh and sped merrily on his way. ‘Sped,’ though, is hardly the word; for the not-then-numerous citizens of Ocean Beach had mostly gone to bed when, its whistle tooting shrilly, the little train rattled down through the draw into their midst — around 1 a.m. The inhabitants turned out in great enthusiasm, fired guns and lit a big bonfire."

The line was subject to boggy breakdowns, however, and having made his point. Carlson resorted to his prior transportation — stageline and ferry — after a few months.

High with the success of their Ocean Beach transactions, Carlson and his partner, Frank Higgins, laid out the town of Monument City. It was located in the southwesternmost corner of the U.S. (near the present San Ysidro), where in 1869 a monument to friendly relations between the U.S. and Mexico had been erected. In 1888 they renamed the town International City, and promising a hotel more lavish than the Cliff House, they began selling lots priced between $100 and $500.

Then an economic depression swept over the nation, and Southern California was particularly hard hit. The tide of incoming people hit its peak in 1888 and turned abruptly, rushing out as fast as it had come in. The population leveled out at 16,000 in 1890, and “For Sale” signs popped up all over San Diego County. Banks began to fail, and lots and homesteads were abandoned as people fled back to the Midwest.

There was panic in San Diego. Frank Higgins collapsed under the stress, and his family sent him to a San Francisco mental institution, where he committed suicide in 1889. But Carlson was made of sterner stuff. He hopped a tram from Los Angeles to New York, where he persuaded financier William Graves to buy up the Ocean Beach property for $400,000, with a clause attached committing Carlson to the completion of the Ocean Beach Railway, rerouted and renamed the San Diego and Eastern Terminal Railway Company. Graves put up an additional $280,000 to extend the line from Roseville to Del Mar, bypassing Ocean Beach, which would lie dormant for two decades.

The Terminal Railroad became the butt of jokes as Carlson worked frantically toward its completion, supervising his crew night and day. In "Carlson’s Midnight Ride," the San Diego Union told of him driving a locomotive down D Street to his newly laid line. Just before they reached the Santa Fe tracks, “the motor got dizzy and ran off. It took about three-quarters of an hour to right her. The car was detached, and in the midst of this work, the supply of coal and water gave out. Billy smiled as though he had the Spreckels bunkers at command and skipped across the road, returning with a sack of coal and bucket of water enough to fill a boiler.” A Santa Fe agent ordered Carlson not to cross their tracks, but when he ran for help, Carlson and his own crew managed to get across the tracks, with the help of some eighteen-foot braces, just in time to avoid collision with a road engine arriving from National City.

Two days later, Carlson’s second child, his first son, was born. The Union reported, “The youngster at once inquired about railroad matters and will be made General Manager of the Terminal in a few minutes." The papers could spoof all they wanted, but a week later, despite a setback due to vandalism, Carlson’s Terminal line opened to a short run along the waterfront. More than 400 people took the ride on October 13, 1890, and the Union conceded that “good nature was everywhere, and that has been Billy Carlson's trump card, combined with a bulldog tenacity.... Public sympathy is with Mr. Carlson, because the people believe that his purpose is to promote the welfare of this city and that if he ever has the means, he will do much.”

Carlson was already doing much without means. He had taken out a franchise for another railroad, and when he wasn’t out fixing the Eastern Terminal, he traveled to New York and Salt Lake City to find backers for his proposed San Diego and Yuma Line. Although there was a transcontinental hookup to San Diego already, it plummeted north to Barstow and beyond. Carlson thought that a train straight to Arizona would be just the thing to perk up the city’s economy.

It was his trip to Salt Lake that brought Carlson to his first scrape with trouble. In his prospectus to the elders of Salt Lake City, he reported as officers of his railway company names of San Diegans who had neither been informed of their status nor indeed who had any connection with the railroad company. One, a Mr. Church, wrote an indignant letter to the Union, which had already received a letter from the Utah, Nevada & California Railway, inquiring if it were true that Carlson’s line owned the depot in San Diego and most of the harbor right-of-way and if all other railroads would have to pay tribute if they entered the city.

The Union decried the “atrocious impudence” of Carlson and claimed that he “has no franchise of any sort for a large part of the alleged railway whose alleged stock he is trying to sell. He has simply strung some ties and laid some rails on other people's land and then gone off to New York and Salt Lake to try to sell the results of his cheeky trespass.... The Union is of the opinion that Carlson's gall has been tolerated long enough and that he and his confederate Graves should be sat down upon.”

While the Union sat on Carlson, the Pacific Coast Steamship Company tore up a considerable portion of track that had been laid for the new line, claiming the ties were theirs and had not been paid for. When the Salt Lake officials heard this news and received a denouncing telegram from the Union editor, the deal was off, and they demanded the money back from subscriptions already sold.

In response, Carlson fired off a letter to the Pacific Steamship Company, stating, “You are hereby notified to relay the rails and fittings taken by your firm from our roadbed ... or you will be proceeded against under the laws of this State.” The letter was published in the local papers, and though no lawsuit followed, the tone of righteous indignation had been set.

When asked about his trip to Salt Lake City, Carlson denied all wrongdoing. “I have had a whole lot of trouble formerly, but the deal I got in Salt Lake was the worst of all. My plan of sale of stock was good and legitimate as could be. My prospectus did not state what was not true and susceptible of proof, and when the telegram from here reached the city, I was as near success as I could possibly be.... I was pointed out as an adventurer and a first-class fraud. I proved, however, that I was not by paying all money back which had been received and by remaining in Salt Lake until I had seen a complimentary notice concerning me copied into every Salt Lake paper.”

Carlson went on to say that he had procured promises from other interested backers and that a transcontinental line would soon be started. He declined, however, to name his new supporters. “Who is it? Well, I won’t go any further, and I suspect I have gone too far already, but ten days will give you a more striking example of what I mean.”

The public began to rally around him as a man who had tried to serve the city only to be betrayed by the big moneyed interests. One citizen wrote to the Union in his defense: “In this age ‘nerve’ and rustle often accomplish what lazy, idle capital fails to, and Mr. Carlson is today, although a poor man. vastly superior and more valuable as a public spirited citizen than many of the money vendors who sit around like fat spiders and absorb per cent and extortionate rents without contributing a dollar — only where they see two per cent a month coming back.... While he may be in some ways visionary or ultra, he would infuse a little life into the dull conservatives that got their start by happening to hold real estate that energetic men like Carlson made valuable."

With popular support, 1890 was clearly the year to start his sprint up the political ladder, and in late fall, he announced his candidacy for county assessor, winning handily. In 1891 he watched the remnants of his International City wash away in the Tia Juana River Valley flood and spent the rainy days studying law.

Carlson launched the first Cabrillo Day on September 28, 1892. It was carefully planned but not well executed. When “Cabrillo” sailed up to Ballast Point, the local dignitaries rushed out on a creaky wharf to welcome him, crowding it until it collapsed and sent them sprawling into the mud. The public laughed at another of Billy’s schemes gone astray but elected him assemblyman anyway and was pleasantly surprised when the fledgling legislator passed the bar exam the day after his election.

In Sacramento Carlson made enough friends in both the Assembly and Senate to pass a $200,000 seawall construction bill for San Diego Harbor. The entrance to the harbor, between North Island and Point Loma, was shoaling up badly, and army engineers determined that sand washing in from the Tia Juana River threatened to make the channel impassable. Although Carlson’s bill was vetoed by the governor, it eventually became law, and Carlson is credited with its instigation.

At that time, the legislature convened every other year. In off-year 1893, Carlson decided to run for mayor of San Diego on an independent ticket. Aside from sniping at one of his four opponents, Adolph Gasser, whom he blamed for persuading the governor to veto the seawall bill, Carlson threw himself into the race with complete optimism. Historian W.E. Smythe chronicled his campaign in the History of San Diego:

"If there was a voter in San Diego whom he did not personally interview, or a man who wanted anything that he did not promise to secure for him, neither have since come to light. As soon as Carlson got into the mayor's chair, there were to be new electric car lines on every street, hotels fitted up a la Edward Bellamy, lines of steamships to every port on earth, transcontinental railroads galore, the park was to be improved at once, everybody was to have plenty of work at the highest wages, and, in short, the millennium was to come then and there."

On election day, Carlson hired a brass band that moved from one polling place to another in a large hack, on which was lettered “San Diego, Phoenix, and Chicago.” This referred to the new San Diego & Phoenix Railway, Carlson’s third railway, which he would incorporate within a month. For Carlson had no intention of abandoning his railroad activities just because he was mayor; in fact, it was the only issue alluded to in his acceptance speech after winning the election with twice as many votes as any other candidate. After the perfunctory thanks, he stated, “...With a direct line of railroad east to Phoenix, San Diego will soon become the great commercial city she has been destined to be."

During his first year as mayor, Carlson and his wife went to Mexico, where they were received by President Porfirio Diaz and given land concessions for his San Diego-to- Phoenix line. Upon his return, he was congratulated, he said, by New York capitalists who “stood ready to furnish the money to complete the balance of the railroad in ten-mile sections as soon as the first ten-mile section is completed.... I will now go ahead with all my might to get the first ten miles through.”

At the end of his first two-year term, however. Mayor Carlson had to admit that the work was going slowly. “True, there is but one man at work with pick and shovel working toward Yuma," he said (Yuma was now just a stop on the way to Phoenix), “but the good work still goes on and will until the railroad is completed.”

In other matters, the city government, unlike the rest of the economy, was operating in the black, paving streets, and building bridges throughout San Diego. One area where the city saved money was the salary for mayor, which was six dollars a year. Carlson complained that he had lost $293,000 in trying to bring a railroad to San Diego, that he had had to sell his home, and that he wore a nickel watch on a two-bit chain, instead of the fine gold watch and chain of the boom days. One reason he was nicknamed the “Boy Mayor” (he was only twenty-nine when elected) was his pouting posture when addressing the city council on the issue of his salary. They responded by saying if he did not like it, he could resign.

“But I did not resign,” said the mayor proudly. “And I have done my duty on behalf of the people without fear of the city council."

The crowd he was addressing on the steps of city hall cheered, and he won a second term. During this term, he complained that every time he vetoed a city council measure, the council members would pass it anyway “without a word of explanation.” He also protested loudly when he felt city workmen were not paid a living wage, a protest some critics unkindly suggested was voiced for the sole purpose of gaining the Knights of Labor support.

To distance himself from a hostile city council, Carlson kept other projects going. He began to speculate on land in the Imperial Valley, an interest that would someday be his downfall. And he became entranced with a popular idea in that day: harnessing the ocean’s energy. Carlson and his father-in-law, Manuel Ferrer, were looking at False Bay (now Mission Bay) one day from the vantage point of what is now Dog Beach. “A wise Providence has created False Bay for some use,” Billy decided and formed the San Diego Power and Electrical Company. The idea was to place huge water wheels in the channel of the bay that would, with the help of the tides, create 5000-horsepower electricity. There were similar projects further down the Ocean Beach coast and in Coronado, where machinery was actually installed. But Carlson’s scheme never got off the drawing board.

Carlson still traveled around the country selling stock in his San Diego-to-Phoenix railway. In 1896 Councilman Olmstead, complaining that the mayor was "cavorting around the country, making a show of himself to the city’s detriment,” introduced a resolution to prorate Carlson’s salary to cover only the time he was in San Diego. The measure never passed, but it stuck in Carlson’s craw; and he decided to run for U.S. Congress. On April. 6, 1896, he announced to the voters of the Seventh District that he would be running on an independent ticket on a platform in support of protective tariffs for grains, a substantial public building in each county seat, and more railroads for California.

Carlson’s main opponent was the Republican incumbent, W.W. Bowers, who had in his own favor a long political career and his brother-in-law, Alonzo Horton.

“Congressman Bowers has been drawing $50,000 a year, and what has he done for San Diego?” asked Carlson, who then answered the question: “Nothing. What we need here is work for every man. Mr. Bowers stands for organized capitalism.” But Carlson had stepped in over his head this time. Bowers had money behind him and could speak articulately of the workings of Congress, his political accomplishments, and his plans for the future. Moreover, he borrowed Carlson’s use of parades and brass bands to spread his views.

On November 28, 1896, the San Diego Record ran the headline: “San Diego has redeemed herself. She has run Bowers way ahead on the ticket and sat on Billy Carlson. The pen is mightier than the sword but the little red rubber stamp does the business every time.” Carlson still had four months left as mayor; he requested funds for a trip to Sacramento and lobbied for money for a state normal school in San Diego. The funding he obtained built what would eventually become San Diego State University.

Carlson counted on winning the congressional seat, and although his name was on the ballot for the 1897 mayoral race, he had thrown his own support to his friend, D.C. Reed, his partner in the San Diego-to-Yuma railroad line, who was also active in the Flume Project, a gravity-driven water trough from Cuyamaca to San Diego. The Union, in its final diatribe against Carlson as mayor, cited this association as proof that he indeed was not pro-labor since he was in support of an out-of-town water project. Nonetheless, voters chose Reed by a wide margin.

The Union article, headlined “The Passing of the Fool,” called Billy "the last and most pertinacious of the blatant and shallow band of adventurers who fattened on false pretenses during the boom.... From his first great scheme — that of irrigating growing crops by planting iceplants between the rows and then treading them down for moisture — down to his latest railroad fake. Carlson has shown the same earmarks — half fool, half fraud.” The article strung together phrases like “fraudulent and insincere,” “false pretense and cunning," "shameless charlatan and betrayer of trust," and ended with, “For Charity’s sake, call him a fool and let him pass.”

The day following the editorial, Carlson presented his own “funeral" in the plaza, with members of the City Guard Band and fireworks on hand. He took a few shots at Coronado developer E.S. Babcock, whom he accused of promising, then reneging the use of his city tracks for the first link of the San Diego-Phoenix rail line. Carlson reminded his fellow citizens that he had been one of the five-member board of trustees eleven years earlier who had "built up" the population of the city from 2500 to 32,000 and had pushed through appropriations for the first city sewer system.

Yet as for his career as an elected politician, it was in fact Carlson's funeral. What's a former mayor who’s just lost a bid for Congress to do? For the next three years, he traveled: first, to Alaska to explore the possibility of a railroad line between Skagway and Frozen Dog. Then, he was back in San Diego, working as a paymaster for the Southern Pacific. He moved to Los Angeles for a while, then was appointed chief of the division of customs in Washington, with the responsibility to review “all matters pertaining to the customs of the islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and all civil affairs relating to those islands as distinguished from matters of a military character.”

In 1900 the Carlsons were back in San Diego, where life took a tragic turn. In June their six-year-old son became ill with a throat ailment and died within a few days. Carlson was subdued for a few months, but by the end of the year, he was writing to his friends from Cuba, where he had been appointed railroad commissioner. His job was to gather statistics for the Cuban Central Railroad, a project said to be backed by the same men who had promised to fund his San Diego-Phoenix road but had failed to win land subsidies. Carlson reported that the opportunities in Cuba were “great" but was back in San Diego within a year.

Shortly thereafter the Carlsons, with their daughter and second son, moved to Los Angeles more or less permanently. Carlson made frequent visits to San Diego where, on some occasions, crowds greeted his train arrival and where he was usually invited to speak at local clubs. It may have been from one of those speeches that W.E. Smythe obtained the notion that Carlson was a successful banker in Los Angeles and included this information in his History of San Diego, published in 1908. That same year, an interesting item appeared in the San Francisco Call: "William H. Carlson, president of the Consolidated Bank of Los Angeles, has been arrested for falsifying the books of the closed institution.”

Carlson had opened up a bank that looked like a legitimate operation in the Chamber of Commerce Building. But one day. there was a bank run. and somehow there was not enough money for withdrawals. Carlson called it an "overdraft problem.” State auditors discovered that the only officers of the bank were Carlson and his wife, and the fancy safe in his office was nothing but a false front camouflaging lath and plaster. So Carlson now had a paper bank to add to his paper towns and paper railways.

He also had the opportunity to practice law for the first time. As he had always run as an independent candidate for office, Carlson now defended himself as his own counsel each time he had to go to court. Evidently his oratory skill had not deserted him, and all charges against him in the bank case were dropped.

Carlson got out of the banking business but not out of trouble. For a few years, things went well, and he made some housing-tract deals in Redondo Beach, the Los Angeles harbor area, Riverside, Pasadena, and San Diego. Then he had another of his great ideas: land sale by mail order. He sent out advertisements announcing that for one dollar down, clients could have a lot, and if the value of the land did not increase twenty-five percent within a year, buyers could have their money back, plus six percent.

In the meantime. Carlson's only surviving son had become a race driver, traveling throughout the country and making quite a name for himself. Then, on the Fourth of July, 1915, as he was participating in a 250-mile race in Tacoma, Washington, his car left the course and crashed, killing him and his mechanic. The death of her second son was too much for Carmen Carlson, and she lapsed into a grief from which she would not fully recover. Carlson responded by suing the Maxwell Motor Car Company for a million dollars, alleging that they had sent his son into the race with defective tires.

During these years, indictments for questionable land dealings were piling up against Carlson, but his place of residence was changing so quickly that they did not catch up with him. Then he showed up in Nogales, Arizona, in 1917, was slapped with a warrant for mail fraud, and extradited to Los Angeles to stand trial. It seems that Carlson “forgot” to pay investors the six percent he had promised when the land he sold them in Niland, Imperial Valley, did not appreciate twenty-five percent within a year. Moreover, as it turned out, Carlson had no legal title to the land.

The reporters who greeted Carlson in Los Angeles noted that he had traded his former natty dress style for a silk- lined khaki suit, a gingham shirt, and cork hat. He said he had been in Mexico raising tomatoes and selling plots of land when he "heard the call of my country [it was the beginning of World War I] and left immediately for the States.” When asked about the pending case he said. “Nothing to it, young man; they claim I misrepresented the value of the Niland lots. The view as to values is merely academic, don’t you know? ... If the matter is ever brought to a trial, wait until I get to that jury!”

But this time, the jury was not persuaded, even though Carlson denied that he had intended to defraud purchasers of his townsite. “I have built half a dozen towns and made a fortune of $500,000 in two separate instances, and I was never accused of fraud,” he said in his defense. “Now I am greatly reduced in wealth, it is true, but no pauper. A man is honest as long as he intends to be honest. If anyone has been defrauded in this case, I am that person, for I have sacrificed almost everything to see my dream of a city on the desert come true.” The jury did not buy this sentimental appeal and found him guilty of mail fraud.

Federal Judge Bledsoe noted that Carlson had promised to repay his clients but remarked that they would probably be dead before they received any payment from him. “I have followed your meteoric career in the promotion of land in Pasadena, Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach, San Diego, and Los Angeles.... For you I have a great deal of sympathy in my heart. I have been a witness of past impediments which you have overcome... but it is incumbent on me as a judge and for the well-being of society to send you to prison.”

On May 18, 1918, Carlson was sent to MacNeil Island to serve a four-year sentence. The following year, his fondest San Diego dream came true — but not for him. John D. Spreckels, after years of buying up small railroad lines and with the use of land conveyances Carlson had won from Mexico, completed the railroad between San Diego and Arizona. How Carlson took this news is not known, but it is clear that he was not adjusting well to 'prison life. That same year, he wrote to President Woodrow Wilson and asked for a pardon, citing poor health and promising once again to repay his clients. He was released from prison in May 1920, after serving two years.

Although the Los Angeles Times reporter who covered the release described Carlson as “broken in spirit and purse,” no such dismal personage appeared before a San Diego group later that year. Speaking of the area in which his land dealings had put him in prison. Carlson said:

“I went to Imperial Valley. It was called New River Valley then — that was in 1893. I organized an expedition to the valley, at a cost to me of $500, and took some pictures of that great region. Then in San Diego., I hired the old Isis Theatre, at a rate of $75, got a band, which cost me $50, and gathered an audience of San Diego people. I told them to go out there and locate, when they could get land free from the government, instead of waiting until it was worth $300 an acre.... And just a few years later, the rush to Imperial Valley actually did take place, and I saw land being sold there for $300 an acre. I claim to be the father of Imperial Valley, and I think the title's rightfully mine.”

Carlson drifted into obscurity during the balance of the Twenties. He was heard from in 1931, when he submitted a claim to back salaries for the years he was Harbor Commissioner in San Diego and was granted over $6000. Apparently, it was not enough to see him through the depression years, for in 1933, after a visit to San Diego, he wrote to the city council asking for a job — any job — that would allow him to spend his last days in San Diego. “Every grain of sand that is part of San Diego is dear to me,” he said. “As I went all over it yesterday, I said to myself. ‘Here I am in Heaven and not allowed to stay. I cannot understand.' ” He claimed that he left San Diego only because he had spent his fortune on the city he had “so ardently toiled for."

“Now again I stand on this, my sixty-ninth birthday, asking for simple work in my dear San Diego in order to be with you and really of you in all your trials and tribulations, depressions and prosperity. May I have that honor, coming from the hearts of the grateful citizens of San Diego whom I know will not want their former mayor for four years, the last of the ‘old guard,’ who laid the foundations of the present great city of San Diego, to suffer a denial of this simple request?"

The council decided not to act in the matter. Only Councilman Goodbody, who remembered the fiery Carlson of the past, pleaded to send the letter to the mayor’s office for consideration and made a motion to that effect. But these were hard times, and the other council members were not interested in helping a has-been mayor with a criminal past. The motion failed, and the letter was filed away. Billy Carlson died in Pasadena, four years later, at the age of seventy-three.

Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

“Cherish those moments because you never know when the waves are gonna be that good again.”

Started at South Garbage to localize myself
Next Article

Two years later, they’re finally pulling Ana out of the river

Safety Orange, Clinton Davis, Jonny Tarr, Berkley Hart, Freakshow
Comments
0

Be the first to leave a comment.

Sign in to comment

Sign in

Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Drinks All Around — Bartenders' drink recipes Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories Fishing Report — What’s getting hooked from ship and shore From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town Letters — Our inbox [email protected] — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Outdoors — Weekly changes in flora and fauna Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Street Style — San Diego streets have style Surf Diego — Real stories from those braving the waves Theater — On stage in San Diego this week Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close