WALTER BELLON. In 1936, Max Miller’s I Cover the Waterfront became a national bestseller. Miller wrote about San Diego’s tough harbor district, its “land sharks” and “bruisers.” Fifty-five-year-old Walter Bellon read the book and roared: it was “mostly junk” and “had no punch.” By the time Miller came on the scene, Bellon huffed, “San Diego’s waterfront was as clean as a hound’s tooth, also the Stingaree. He knew nothing of the past!”
Bellon did. In 1910, the Health Department chose him to clean up the notorious red-light district. The task took six years, and during that time Bellon became, in his words, “the most hated man in San Diego.”
When he was 12, in 1893, Bellon quit the fifth grade and worked at an iron foundry in Trenton, New Jersey. He lifted heavy weights from bench molds 12 hours a day, Monday–Saturday, for $2 a week. He always bragged about his strength. “I could swing a wicked right,” he wrote in his “Memoirs,” and his left “carried T.N.T.” As a light-heavyweight boxer in the Army, he earned a reputation among the “cauliflower ears.”
After serving in the Spanish-American War — he enlisted at 17 — Bellon worked as an apprentice plumber in the rougher parts of Trenton. “I always kept aloof, but I never backed away. Standing one’s ground is always an asset when confronted by a bully.”
Bellon came to San Diego in 1908. He’d heard about the climate, and when he arrived on January 17, the temperature was 72. He decided to stay, working as a steam fitter, for $4.59 a day, and part-time plumbing inspector for the city.
In 1910, Dr. Francis Mead, chief of the health department, took Bellon aside. San Diego is hosting the World’s Fair in 1915, he said. The City wants to clean up the waterfront, the red-light (Stingaree) district, and Chinatown. Would Bellon inspect these areas for sanitation problems and unsafe structures?
Bellon thought about it. Offhand, he estimated that over 100 buildings in “the lower part of town” were nowhere near code. Shanties in the tidelands teetered on stilts. Large vermin infested the clapboard saloons and brothels in the Stingaree. Redwood shacks in Chinatown had neither plumbing nor ventilation.
Prominent San Diegans owned property in the Stingaree, the City’s most lucrative district, and their hired hands, called “enforcers,” took “a proprietary interest in maintaining the status quo.”
“For a city official to tangle with a recipient of this tainted business was suicide,” Bellon wrote. And law enforcement would be no help. There were so few officers in 1910 that they rarely patrolled the district, which policed itself.
Bellon took the job — not for the $90 per month, he said, but for the “personal challenge.” And though Dr. Mead tried several times to convince him, Bellon refused a bodyguard. “I was the only one confident of success,” he said. “Even other health employees would ask when I would throw in the sponge.”
He made his first rounds in September of 1910. His companion, Dr. Mead, had never been to the Stingaree. Dressed in business suits and bowler hats, they went straight to Pete Cassidy’s notorious saloon at 452 Fifth Avenue. The owner, in his mid-50s with a face as scarred by fists and broken bottles as wrinkled by time, was one of San Diego’s most infamous entrepreneurs. In 1898, during a court trial, when the bailiff called Cassidy’s name, many in the room craned their necks to glimpse the legend they’d heard so much about.
“Just here to inspect conditions,” Bellon told Cassidy. “Health department.”
Bellon and Mead moved through the bar, taking mental notes. As they were about to enter the back rooms, the sites of high-stakes card games and dopers high on opium, one of Cassidy’s enforcers stood before them, legs spread, arms crossed, chin belligerent.
“It’s my job,” Bellon said, sidestepping the thug and entering one of the Stingaree’s most infamous — and, it turned out, grimy — inner sanctums.
“The hoodlums…were tough,” Bellon wrote, “and so was I. I let it be known that I did not frighten easily.”
Bellon and Mead went to the cribs behind Cassidy’s. The “working man’s brothel” consisted of 20 board-and-batten, one-room shacks where, writes Bellon, “on a busy evening, ladies with tarnished hangovers were there to greet you.” Instead, on this Saturday morning, two of Cassidy’s enforcers, Hosterder and Pigeon, blocked their way. “No one permitted,” one said. “Private grounds.”
“Make no backward step,” Bellon whispered to Mead, whose first inclination was to do just that, since black pistol handles protruded from the men’s shoulder holsters. Bellon pinched his left bicep close to his side, bulging his coat, and pretended to conceal a handgun as well. This trick became standard procedure during inspections.
“I extended the same brand of courtesy the strong-arm thugs handed me. They were never sure if I was armed or not.” Bellon was conducting a complete survey of the district, he explained to the enforcers, and would make recommendations and post citations. The health department’s concerned with how people are living, he said, not with “what they’re doing.”
Bellon wasn’t sure how they’d react. At that time, even among “the best citizens, health inspection was not regarded as essential.” He gave Hosterder and Pigeon two weeks to ponder his request. As he and Mead left the stockade-like compound, maybe 40 pairs of eyes followed their every step from behind dusty curtains and doors ajar.
Two weeks later, Bellon inspected the cribs, joined by assistant district attorney Shelley J. Higgins, who one day would decide the prostitutes’ fate in court. Above the doors hung good-luck charms and women’s names: Sadie, Gwendolyn, Ethelryda. Inside, “where light was seldom seen,” Bellon and Higgins found no toilets (no plumbing, for that matter), lice, clusters of thick mold, gunk.
“Every city has girls like those living on the fringe of the evening hour, making excitement pay the bill,” he wrote. “You call them play girls, but these girls play for keeps.” Though he found them “disreputable,” Bellon conceded that “these unfortunates had sunk so low in the scales of human misery, there was no return.”
Wide-eyed Higgins, who like Dr. Mead was new to the district, had a different reaction: “Whatever may have been their behavior in secret, in public their comportment certainly was no indication. Their appearance was circumspect.”
The men went across the street to the Stables, a long row of cribs that resembled horses’ stalls, in Wildcat Alley. Inside a crib — where “fast blondes served slow gin” — they found a bed, maybe a chair. A wash bowl and pitcher “served as plumbing.” When the time came, Bellon noted to Higgins, these shacks would have to go: for sanitary, not sanctimonious, reasons.
They crossed Third to Chinatown. “These Orientals were fine people,” Bellon wrote, “and their only desire was to be left alone.” The architecture resembled a maze constructed from the center out: a second room grew from the original, then others sprawled from them in all directions, each with 50 feet of floor space at best. The architects “built the outside walls around the rooms” and left out the windows.
Bellon and Higgins found the inside rooms “as dark as rat holes,” with neither light nor air. They found few mattresses, just planks and a thin layer of matting and a round wooden head rest. “Yet these elderly Orientals could survive such punishment and live to a ripe old age.”
That puzzled Bellon, because his carbon dioxide tests of the sleeping quarters showed 80 parts of CO2 per 10,000 — a high percentage of impure air that could almost “strangle” a person.
After his initial inspections, even though newspapers had announced his aims, most San Diegans didn’t think Bellon was serious. People had screamed “slam the lid on the Stingaree” for decades, even before it got its name. Was the self-righteous Bellon just a gruff-talking, civic bluff?
People began to question his intentions. “The females were nervous,” he said. “They were willing to talk, and I was willing to listen.” A large percentage of the prostitutes had come to San Diego for their health — pulmonary ailments and a fear of TB — so when Bellon announced his mission, he says, “all seemed to agree that something must be done.” He spoke of improving conditions, not moving them out.
Bellon soon became a target. At 10 a.m., every time he turned the corner of Third and I(sland) and entered Chinatown, he saw at least 50 people on the street. They’d be gone in 30 seconds. “They avoided me as if I had smallpox.”
Bellon befriended the district’s leaders: Ah Quin, Tom Kay, Tom Huck, and others. The legendary “mayor of Chinatown,” Ah Quin owned a restaurant on Third, half a block south of I(sland). Unlike most Chinese, who saw Bellon as another symbol of the white harassment that forced an estimated 65 percent to flee San Diego and return to China in 1910, Ah Quin befriended the inspector.
Ah Quin invited Bellon to dinner. Long discussions ensued, in English, which Quin spoke fluently. Quin became more than an ally; he spread the word about improvements and became one of the first Chinese to install plumbing in his home.
Ah Quin introduced Bellon to Chinatown. Bellon grew accustomed to the pungent scent of joss sticks, thin smoke rising before religious icons, and the clack of dominoes coming from numerous, small redwood dwellings on I Street between Second and Third.
Opium was legal in small amounts in 1910. Bellon watched addicts “make and smoke their pills and slumber.” He kept his distance. “Dopesters are a dangerous breed; treat them kindly, then leave them alone. I had enough trouble and did not want to add to it.”
Bellon took two years to make his survey. In that time, he ate in Chinatown’s restaurants and made “small purchases” in their stores. He never forced his authority west of Third Street. Once the Chinese understood his intentions — thanks to Ah Quin and Tom Huck — more appeared on the streets when he walked by. “Many nodded, some saluted, others spoke.”
Stingaree denizens east of Chinatown were another matter. From Third Street to Twelfth, and down to the waterfront, Bellon heard threats from “hoodlums and bouncers.” When it became clear he wasn’t quitting, threats increased. Bellon answered with a chip on his shoulder, but always made his rounds in the late morning, when locals slept off last night’s liquor, and never after sundown.
He was the secretary and “public agent” for the San Diego Rifle Club, which published members’ scores every Tuesday morning. His were always among the highest, he bragged, and he made sure his opponents heard about his marksmanship: “Tough men have respect for one who knows how to handle a six gun.”
In 1912, Bellon moved into the final phase of his “slum radication.” He’d served notices on those buildings needing improvement. Some responded. Those beyond repair received condemnations. When occupants had to find new lodgings, many of the elderly went to Associated Charities. Crawfish Charlie, who had lived in his apartment for over 30 years, expressed gratitude. But even though Bellon claimed that “their welfare was much improved,” not all went happily, and he admitted that a large number of suddenly homeless residents “felt badly wounded by this health movement.” He moved them anyway.
For the demolition phase, Bellon hired a three-man wrecking crew. They had two options: tear down structures with axes, crowbars, and sledgehammers; or torch them to the ground. Sanitary conditions determined which. They would burn the buildings “overrun with vermin” under the watchful eye of the fire department.
Those owners who had made no changes in a year kept a wait-and-see attitude. To prove he wanted “cooperation, or else,” Bellon announced his first strategic assault: 13 buildings, many on pilings joined by a plank walkway, at the foot of Eighth. The area, aptly named Pirates’ Cove, was far more dangerous than the Stingaree. Thieves and guano poachers ruled the rundown locale. If Bellon could succeed here — literally set hell on fire — he’d send a clear message uptown.
The San Diego Union rarely mentioned his crusade, Bellon said, because it refused to reveal the “families of respectability” who owned condemned properties. Even though the papers made no announcement, when the morning came for demolition, over 1000 San Diegans came to see the spectacle at the foot of Eighth.
Firemen moved from structure to structure, making sure everyone had been evacuated. Aided by onlookers — as curious to see if Bellon meant business as they were to see a conflagration — firemen cleared debris from the surrounding area.
Pacing like a general before a decisive battle, Bellon consulted his charts, dramatically pointed here and there, and gave stern orders, in part to assure the crowd he was in charge.
Bellon, who later became a San Diego County supervisor for the First District, relished the spotlight. He stepped on a prominent rise, holding a torch in his hand. The crowd quieted down. But before he could cross the railroad tracks and ignite the structures, a sliver of smoke snaked toward the sky from behind a condemned building. It rose and grew into a twisting pillar, the tip curved inland by the sea breeze. Flames spread below. The building, little more than a kindling skeleton, exploded into a giant orange ball. Firebrands shot sideways. They speared adjoining structures, which cracked into flame like incendiary dominoes. Firemen raced to the perimeter. Bucket brigades followed, at the ready. The crowd roared, awed by the fireworks.
Was Bellon’s raised torch a signal to begin, or did an outsider start the fire? Bellon made it look as if all had gone according to plan. So did new health supervisor, Dr. A.E. Banks, who shook Bellon’s hand and patted his back. Great job, he said for all to hear. Our crusade has begun!
“A clever trick,” he whispered to Bellon. “The health authorities can’t be blamed for an act they didn’t do.”
In his “Memoirs,” however, Bellon confessed he was as surprised as the crowd. He had no clue who or what started the fire. He saw no one, and the firemen had assured him the area was clear. The blaze, which burned the 13 structures and harmed no others, just…happened.
“It was certainly well timed,” he wrote. “I received commendation of the highest order.”
— Jeffrey Smith
Next time: Bellon’s future assignments would prove less miraculous.
1. Bellon, “Memoirs”: “Many events concerning Health Matters were never told or written because of political repercussions. However, they are written here.”
Bellon neither smoked nor drank: “One glass of wine,” he quoted a proverb, “the man drinks wine; Two glasses of wine, wine drinks wine; Three glasses of wine, wine drinks man.”
Bellon’s eulogy for Ah Quin concludes: “He looked on the loveliness of the world and aided in correcting its imperfections.”
Bellon, Walter, “Memoirs,” ms, San Diego Historical Society archives; “This is My Story,” quoted in Shelley J. Higgins’s, “This Fantastic City, San Diego,” ms, San Diego Historical Society archives.
Brandes, Ray, et al, “San Diego’s Chinatown and Stingaree District,” archaeological report, University of San Diego, 1986.
Hensley, Herbert C., “Memoirs,” ms, San Diego Historical Society archives.
Higgins, Shelley J., “This Fantastic City, San Diego,” ms, San Diego Historical Society archives.
McCanna, Jr., Clare V., “Prostitutes, Progressives, and Police: The Viability of Vice in San Diego, 1900–1930,” Journal of San Diego History, vol. 35, number 1, Winter 1989.
McPhail, Elizabeth C., “When the Red Lights Went Out in San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History, vol. 20, number 2, Spring 1974.
Van Horn, Randy, “He Worked Out of City Hall: the Biography of Walter C. Bellon,” master’s thesis, University of San Diego, 1986.
…articles from the San Diego Union, the San Diego Sun, and the Los Angeles Times.
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 1
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 2
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 3
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 5
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 6