Smiling Billy

The boy mayor of San Diego

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.

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.

San Diego Historical Society - Ticor Collection

“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?

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

San Diego Historical Society - Ticor Collection

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.

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

San Diego Historical Society - Ticor Collection

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."

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