A Page from History: A look back at Charlie Collier’s once-famous shack
Welcome to Collier’s Shack, friends and neighbors! Our guests are always encouraged to relax, put their feet up, recharge their batteries and enjoy our fresh air, balmy breezes and unparalleled views from our promontory high above the crashing surf of the mighty Pacific.
Doesn’t that sound great? It is certainly intended to. Come on, take a stroll in the garden or along the cliffs. Hop in the pool if you have a mind to. Our hospitality here is second to none, and the food isn’t bad either.
You’ve never heard of Collier’s Shack? That’s not surprising, as the shack has been gone from Ocean Beach for nearly 50 years. But the humble dwelling was once a genuine landmark, a beacon of unsophisticated charm and inspiration, with its own very colorful mythology. The shack was a refuge, a gathering place, a party palace and, let’s be honest here, at times the old joint was a bit of an eyesore.
Hyperbole notwithstanding, Collier’s Shack was one of the first permanent residences in Ocean Beach. It played no small role in the history of San Diego either, and significantly, the place was known, and for good reason, as “the home of good ideas.”
Let’s take a moment to introduce you to D.C. Collier. Though his is no longer a household name in this town, one could easily fill a short story in a local newsmagazine with blandishments for a man who was one of San Diego’s most significant and influential citizens. As tempting as that might be, we will try to hold it down.
As a committed extrovert and a serious “doer,” Collier had his opponents and detractors over the years, so let’s get that part out of the way. He was outspoken, shall we say, and, as such, rubbed some folks the wrong way. It happens. Collier was a big old boy, physically imposing, particularly for the last century, large and in charge, loud and flamboyant. But it wasn’t his size so much as his energy that impressed people — his infectious, seemingly boundless, creative energy.
Collier was always on the up and up. His generosity and service to the community remain unmatched. He was outgoing and jovial. The plaque placed to honor Collier in Balboa Park’s California Quadrangle extolls Collier as not only “the creative genius behind the Panama–California Exposition of 1915” but as “a great and lovable character.”
Collier was described variously as “the prophet of San Diego’s future” and “the president of the Republic of Happiness.” Here he is known as the father of Ocean Beach, yet he also is very much the Rodney Dangerfield of San Diego history. His friends knew him simply as Charlie.
There are plenty of stories about Charlie Collier. Yes, some of us once attended a junior high school named for him. Some of us also once witnessed a small-scale riot in an Ocean Beach park, a small part of which still bears his name.
But this is an older story, the story of Collier’s famous shack.
Collier came to San Diego with his family (parents D.C. and Martha, sister Mabel and brother Frank) from Colorado as a 12-year-old in 1884. Two years later he was working as a messenger and later a bookkeeper for First National Bank. Fast forward another couple of years and the precocious teenager was making his first real estate investment, a cliffside lot that young Charlie purchased from Ocean Beach developers Billy Carlson and Frank Higgins. The parcel was at the bottom of what would become Pacific Avenue, now the corner of Coronado Avenue and Bacon Street.
A popular story is that Collier built his shack, but contemporaneous and more credible sources suggest he probably moved a two-room frame cabin onto the property in 1888. He put it right on the edge of the cliff, too, and then continued to add to his shack over the next 25 years.
Collier was admitted to the California State Bar at age 20, but it was in real estate that he made his mark and several fortunes. His story was that he frequently accepted real estate in lieu of payment from legal clients. A strong believer in the potential of the region, Collier subdivided his properties, put in streets and utilities and always planted trees.
Collier’s local subdivisions include Point Loma Heights and Ocean Beach Park, but he also was instrumental in the development of North Park, La Mesa, Ramona, Encanto, East San Diego, University Heights, Normal Heights and Pacific Beach. Collier is credited as being the first San Diegan to have a phonograph, as well as the first guy in town to own an automobile. The year was 1900 and the car reportedly was an Oldsmobile three-wheeler.
In 1896, Collier married Ella May Copley, sister of future U.S. Rep. Ira Copley. The Colliers lived with their two boys, David and Ira, at least part time at the shack in Ocean Beach. By that time the property had acquired several other buildings, a Japanese garden and a swimming pool, naturally one of the first in town.
The best description we have of the shack comes from the magazine The Pictorial American in January 1907: “This was the ‘Shack,’ a trim cottage-like affair, and yet unlike any cottage ever seen before. No architect had drawn the plans, no preconceived ideas of beauty, art or convenience were responsible for its claim to all these attributes, and yet it had them — by accident or necessity ... perhaps — but nevertheless it was ornate, it was artistic to a fault and moreover the acme of convenience and comfort.
“About the nucleus of the (original) two rooms ... has grown up a novel and sightly habitation containing living room, dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms, bathroom, attic bedroom, sun porches and cellar, the latter well-stocked with provisions and necessary supplies for the cuisine and buffet.”
It was revealed that the shack could sleep 16, as it was “the custom of the genial host and his wife to entertain at frequent intervals all the way from one to a dozen friends for a day or several days at a time.”
It was from his shack on the cliff that Collier planned and established the Point Loma Railroad in 1908. It was there that he organized the Order of Panama and conceived what became the Panama-California Exposition of 1915. It also was at the shack that Collier originated the idea that tile remnants from the old Spanish presidio might be used to fabricate what we know as the Serra Cross on Presidio Hill. These are all stories that might be told at another time.
The Colliers divorced in November 1914, and on Jan. 3, 1915, the following blurb appeared in the San Diego Union: “The Balboa Country Club, formerly known as Collier’s Shack, which recently was taken over by an incorporated body of San Diegans, is proving to be a popular resort.”
By 1919, the shack had become the Alligator Rock Lodge, where Mrs. B.F. Lee was offering “spotless, well-furnished rooms” and “real home cooking” at “moderate prices.”
In 1935, an ad for “California’s most unique dining room,” The Cliffs, claimed it to be “the house of peace and plenty by the side of the sea,” once known as Alligator Rock Lodge.
I rode my bike past Collier’s Shack dozens, maybe hundreds, of times in the 1960s and early ‘70s. I had no idea what it was or what it had been, just a crazy old house on the cliffs. I must report that the place looked a little funky around the edges by that point, with its rusty chain link fence keeping people from tumbling over the side. The shack looked almost uninhabited.
Ocean Beach photographer Steve Rowell was able to capture what the place looked like in those days. The photo is included in the great collection of black-and-white images he published with Noah Tafolla, “OB in the ‘60s.” Steve told me he had no idea what the place was either. He just wanted to get a record of a venerable old beach house.
But now we know, and now you know, that the funny old place was none other than Charlie Collier’s famous shack.
Eric DuVall is president of the Ocean Beach Historical Society (obhistory.org). Board members Kitty McDaniel and Jonnie Wilson contributed to this article. Basic membership in the Historical Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is $15 annually, tax-deductible.