A Page from History: Charlie Collier and the Point Loma Railroad
How a uniquely energetic San Diego barrister and real estate developer built a rail line to Point Loma and Ocean Beach, traces of which can still be seen today.
As the sands of time drifted into the 20th century, conditions remained very nice at the mussel beds on the west side of Point Loma. Nice and slow, that is. The surf crashed, the gulls laughed as they sailed along with the sea breeze, and wildflowers carpeted the dunes.
Only rarely was this reverie interrupted by the presence of homo sapiens. People, that is. They tended to show up in groups, mainly in wagons — talley-hos, they called them — and almost exclusively on weekends. Sure, you could get out to Los Medanos (The Sand Dunes), as the Spanish used to say, it just wasn’t that easy.
It hadn’t started badly for twentysomething rookie real estate hustlers Billy Carlson and Frank Higgins; it just ended up that way. The partners had managed to borrow a reported $50,000 (approximately 1.5 million 2022 dollars), and for that bargain price, they had purchased 600 acres of hills and sand dunes, with an ocean view. Beautiful ocean, wonderful beach, so naturally they named the new community New Jersey. Kidding, of course! No, obviously they called it Ocean Beach.
Carlson and Higgins started selling Ocean Beach lots in the middle of 1887. Lots of people bought those lots. You had to put down only 15 bucks, after all. It was collecting the subsequent payments that proved to be the tricky part.
Sales were brisk the first year. The partners staged promotions and band concerts to bring folks out to the beach. “Smilin’ Billy” promised new and prospective townies a lovely hotel to be perched on the bluff at the south end of the beach, along with a railroad line that would make the bumpy beach trek relatively easy and convenient. To their credit, Carlson and Higgins did build the hotel. The elegant landmark Cliff House opened its doors on New Year’s Day 1888. Unfortunately, Carlson’s Ocean Beach Railroad traveled a rougher route.
Carlson’s original plan to run a rail line from Old Town to the beach never left the platform. People could easily take the Roseville ferry to Roseville; then it would be only a mile or so stroll from the ferry landing at Rose’s Wharf (at the foot of Talbot Street) north to Macauley Street, later known as Roseville Junction. There you could, theoretically, get the train to Ocean Beach. Rails were laid and everything, and Carlson did manage to pull a few streetcars out to Ocean Beach ... by horse. We’ll cut him some slack — horse-drawn streetcars were very common in the 1880s.
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Carlson’s main stumbling blocks were two. Strike one was that he was never able to acquire a steam locomotive for his railroad. Then his rails were taken up and repossessed in the middle of the night one time. He might have forgotten to pay that bill. So after just three months of infrequent and unreliable “service,” the sorry saga of the Ocean Beach Railroad clunked to a close.
The brief OB boom had quickly gone bust, and so had Carlson and Higgins. In early 1889, a distraught Higgins took his own life and Carlson sold the Cliff House. The next couple of decades were peaceful in Ocean Beach. By 1900, Carlson had been elected to the state Assembly for one term, mayor of San Diego for a term, and after a few assorted and sordid misadventures, left town. In an unrelated development, the Cliff House burned to the ground.
There wasn’t much left in Ocean Beach. The town claimed just a few permanent residents. Fortuitously, one of them was Charlie Collier.
You remember Charlie, don’t you? That “great and lovable character”? “The creative genius behind the Panama-California Exposition of 1915”? “The president of the Republic of Happiness”? The fella who lived out in that “shack” on the edge of the cliff? Yep, that’s the guy. Now, this is the part where Charlie Collier became the true Father of Ocean Beach.
Welcome to Collier’s Shack, friends and neighbors!
By 1907, Collier was a successful San Diego barrister and real estate developer. He had acquired a significant measure of local notoriety as a tireless San Diego civic booster and both nationally and at the state level as an operative in the administration of Gov. J.N. Gillett. It was in that capacity that Collier received the honorary title of colonel.
If we told you that Collier was not one to stand pat or sit still, we would be drastically understating the capacity of this uniquely energetic San Diego businessman. To go with his partnerships in the Ralston Realty and Easton-Collier companies, with several associates, Collier added to his stable of businesses the Point Loma Electric Railway Co.
As plans for a new rail line to Point Loma and Ocean Beach progressed, Collier founded Western Investment Co. and served as president of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce. The franchise granted to the Point Loma Electric Railway detailed a route from the end of the San Diego Electric Railway’s State Street Line, along a corridor between Kurtz and Hancock streets, crossing the Santa Fe tracks at Witherby Street and then out Tide Street (Barnett Avenue) toward Lytton and Rosecrans streets.
It might be well to mention that there was no Interstate 5 in 1908. There was no Pacific Highway, no Marine Corps Recruit Depot and no Naval Training Center. The path described was considered a very scenic route along the shore of San Diego Bay and was promoted as such.
In its 1908 year-end review, the Evening Tribune declared: “The Point Loma railroad will not only greatly increase the attractiveness of San Diego to tourists and visitors by giving them an easy and comfortable ride to points of scenic grandeur, but it will also open up, by making accessible from the business section of the city, a beautiful residence section. On the crown of Point Loma, reservations have been made for magnificent homes, and with improvements made by man, fitting in with the glory of the landscape, this portion of the San Diego Bay region is expected to become one of the show spots of the world.”
At that time you could still count the permanent residents of Ocean Beach on two hands. Collier certainly wanted to make the trip out to OB simpler, easier and much faster, but, though the Point Loma railroad was being constructed as a first-class operation, Collier had no aspirations to become a railroad man. Charlie’s business was real estate. His holdings included a large portion of Carlson and Higgins’ original Ocean Beach subdivision, the expansive Point Loma Heights subdivision and his new subdivision Ocean Beach Park, the northern third of OB.
A few years earlier, Collier had been the first individual in San Diego to own an automobile. But he knew that the key to transforming distant districts into viable residential communities was reliable, affordable public transportation.
The original parameters of the Point Loma Electric Railway had grown into something larger over the first year of its existence, triggering the reorganization of the venture into the more substantially capitalized Point Loma Railroad Co. PLRR was independent. The company’s goals and plans were its own, as were its substantial investments in materials and labor.
From the outset, however, the Point Loma Railroad had been planned to operate in conjunction with the growing “regional transit system.” The line was developed with the cooperation and significant support of John D. Spreckels’ San Diego Electric Railway.
At Rosecrans Street the PLRR tracks turned south as far as Macauley Street in the heart of Roseville. There, at Roseville Junction, the tracks were laid toward the west along the old Ocean Beach Railroad right of way through Carlson Canyon, the route traversed by present-day Nimitz Boulevard. The line continued toward Ocean Beach, crossing Chatsworth Boulevard and continuing along present-day Wabaska Drive to Voltaire Street, where the line angled directly toward the beach. PLRR would then head south at what would soon be known as Wonderland Station, the corner of Voltaire and Bacon streets in OB. The line traveled south through Ocean Beach to Santa Cruz Avenue, where it turned east. The two blocks between Bacon and DeFoe Street (Sunset Cliffs Boulevard) were not a public street at that time, and that stretch remains the easiest and most obvious location to see evidence of the old streetcar line.
As farfetched as it may sound today, the PLRR tracks crossed DeFoe Street and headed up the hill. If you’re thinking that traffic must not have been as bad in those days, you are clearly no one to be trifled with. Do not try this tomorrow, but in 1908, you could stand in the middle of DeFoe Street at Santa Cruz Avenue and you would be waiting all morning for a car to pass. The Point Loma Railroad then continued up Santa Cruz Avenue for three blocks — yes, that is a very steep hill. At Guizot Street you will see a wide arc curving south on the southwest corner of the intersection. It is not a normal street corner, because that’s the way the old PLRR ran.
One block over at the corner of Coronado Avenue, the streetcar tracks turned southeast and angled “cross-lots,” as they used to say, over two blocks to the corner of Orchard Avenue and Santa Barbara Street, bisecting the 4400 block of Del Mar Avenue. That old streetcar right of way has left some oddly shaped lots in that neighborhood, and you may easily find them if you care to look.
The tracks then turned east along Orchard Avenue at Santa Barbara Street, headed down two blocks, crossed Catalina Boulevard and turned north down what today appears to be a crazy little alley that parallels Catalina on the east side. That alley is the old PLRR right of way. Again, there was no neighborhood there at that time.
The tracks continued north to the vicinity of Wells Street, where they again turned east to a switch at Tennyson Street, then returned down Carlson Canyon to Rosecrans, completing the Ocean Beach Loop of the Point Loma Railroad.
Always a goodwill ambassador for San Diego, Collier had traveled around the country shopping for the finest materials for PLRR. From Northern California he secured some 35,000 railroad ties, all reputed to be “of an excellent quality of redwood.” The load required three schooners for transport.
From Colorado he requisitioned “100 kegs of bolts” and “300 kegs of railroad spikes,” hardware weighing in at just under 86,000 pounds. From Illinois Steel in Joliet, Collier purchased 900 tons of the finest HD steel rails. Some 30 flat cars of rails rolled toward San Diego, destined for the yards of the Point Loma Railroad. In addition, Collier had acquired the most modern steel tie plates and rail braces, weighing in at 24 tons. All of that for a line that topped out at just over eight miles of tracks.
In early 1909, Collier bought out Ralston Realty partner A.H. Howard and changed the name of the company to D.C. Collier and Co. The Point Loma Railroad bought three Niles California Interurban cars from the San Diego Southern Railway and one SDER California Car, later used by Wells Fargo & Co. as a sightseeing car on the PLRR line.
The first part of the line opened May 1, 1909, and performed flawlessly to great fanfare. The San Diego City Guard Band rode and played in one of the first cars all the way out to Ocean Beach. People lined the route and cheered as Col. Collier, playing motorman, took the first car on the PL line quickly and safely to Ocean Beach. By July 1, the entire Ocean Beach Loop had been completed.
The Point Loma Railroad proved to be very reliable and popular. Trains ran 12 times daily from Third and D Street (Broadway) to Roseville and Ocean Beach. The commute was about 30 minutes to Roseville and 40 minutes to OB, for a quarter.
In 1910, a year after the line opened, the San Diego Electric Railway purchased the Point Loma Railroad from Collier. By that time there were more than 100 families living in Ocean Beach, as well as listings for several businesses. When the fabulous amusement park Wonderland opened on the Fourth of July 1913, it was immediately successful, as visitors found it was an easy commute to Wonderland Station via the Point Loma Railroad.
The long-planned shuttle up and down Rosecrans from Roseville Junction to the Fort Rosecrans gate — the La Playa Local — opened in 1916. The shuttle ran many times daily for eight years until it was replaced by the No. 13 train. Spreckels continued to run PLRR as a separate entity until it was replaced by the new high-speed Beach Line in 1924.
The first of May 1924 was a “red letter day” in the history of Ocean Beach.
If you would like to take a quick trip around the OB Loop over contemporary surface streets and through plenty of traffic, go to YouTube and search for “OB Loop of the Point Loma Railroad c. 1909,” or find the Ocean Beach Historical Society channel, where the OB Loop quick flick is toward the bottom of the page under “OBHS Specials.” Be sure to buckle up.
Eric DuVall is president of the Ocean Beach Historical Society. OBHS board member Kitty McDaniel contributed to this article. Membership in OBHS, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is $25 annually. Visit obhistory.org.