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.
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.
On November 11, 1891, Vice President David Dare announced he had health problems. He had to go to Europe, he told San Diegans without batting an eye at the irony, “for the climate.”
On November 12, 1891, a sign at the bank’s entrance announced that, “owing to continued shrinkages in deposits,” and an inability to be prompt “on our notes and accounts,” California National would be closed, temporarily.
Collins, who would become implicated when the bank folded, was in San Francisco. He sent a telegram assuring everyone that the troubles were minor and the bank would reopen soon. Then he boarded a train to San Diego and yet another tragedy.
Crane, Claire, “Jesse Shepard and the Villa Montezeuma,” Journal of San Diego History, vol. 16, number 3, Summer 1970.
Dumke, Glenn S., The Boom of the Eighties in Southern California, San Marino, 1944.
Hensley, Herbert, “Memoirs,” ms, vol. v, San Diego Historical Society archives.
Kushner, Howard I., American Suicide, New Brunswick, 1991.
MacMullen, Jerry, “High Finance in the 1890s,” San Diego Union, January 7, 1962.
Smith, Walter Gifford, The Story of San Diego, San Diego, 1892.
Smythe, William E., History of San Diego, 1542–1908, San Diego, 1908.
…articles in the San Diego Union, the San Diego Sun, the San Diego Bee, the Los Angeles Times, and the Journal of San Diego History.
Go to Unforgettable: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Dare Part 2
Go to Unforgettable: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Dare Part 3