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  Carlson, William H. "Billy"
NameWilliam H. "Billy" Carlson
San Diego, California , United States
Born April 11, 1864
DiedJuly 00, 1937 (73 years)
ContributorThomas Walker
Last ModifedThomas Walker
Jan 04, 2006 03:42pm
InfoWhat are the odds that a fast-talking 28 year-old Swedish immigrant, without benefit of party affiliation, would defeat four respected and well-connected citizens to become San Diego’s mayor? Yet this is just what happened in the spring of 1893. In fact, he repeated this feat in 1895 (terms lasted two years) easily becoming the first mayor to win reelection and proving his startling 1893 victory was no fluke.

A dapper and lanky man, William (Billy) Carlson was as colorful a promoter and politician as the city has ever seen. In retrospect, The San Diego Union remembered him as a “picturesque figure” of the “early San Diego days” who, as the “chief incumbent” was the “most prized optimist in Southern California.” He talked of growing up near the San Francisco wharfs and of experiencing Sacramento politics as a Senate page, as if he was a native born Californian. But census records tell a different story. Born in Sweden on April 11, 1864, young William had crossed the Atlantic with his family, settling in San Francisco by 1870. His eloquence would never betray this immigrant past in word or accent.

Arriving in San Diego before 1885, he soon became local editor for The San Diego Sun newspaper. But quick riches beckoned. He brought into a San Francisco associate and opened the Carlson & Higgins real estate firm, just as the real estate boom of 1886-1888 took off. They founded the seaside resort of Ocean Beach in 1887, but struggled financially because their Cliff House Hotel and available lots were a 2½-hour carriage ride from downtown. Overcoming rail shortages and boggy ground, Carlson’s rented locomotive finally chugged up to their Victorian hotel in April 1888. But it was too late. The boom was collapsing and investors were fleeing. Cliff House closed, the rental locomotive was returned, and Ocean Beach development was put on hold. Facing financial ruin, Carlson’s business partner committed suicide. But Billy fought on. He convinced an Eastern financier to purchase their properties, and stayed on as local manager. But the development of Ocean Beach would be delayed 20 years, until the arrival of permanent rail service.

During the boom, the ambitious young Billy had quickly made a name for himself. He was elected as a City Trustee (Councilman) at age 22 and helped spearhead the successful drive for a modern sewer system with a $400,000 price tag. He also caught the eye of the lovely senorita Carmen Ferrer, an Estudillo, who had wealth and property, and was from one of California’s “oldest and best known Castilian-Spanish families.” When they were married in San Diego on October 3, 1887, the future looked bright.

Although he lost an 1890 bid for County Assessor, further railroad exploits kept his name in the papers. The Union conceded that Billy’s popularity was due to his good nature, his “bulldog tenacity,” and his dedication to improving the city. By 1892 Carlson had become convinced that a sea wall would improve the harbor and revitalize the economy. He “volunteered” to go to Sacramento and with the support of the City behind him stormed the state capital and in short order got his Assembly Bill 20, “Funds for a Sea Wall, Piers and Thoroughfare for San Diego Harbor,” through both houses of the legislature. San Diego papers loved his “energy and pluck.” Next, brimming with confidence from having discretely studied his law books, Carlson appeared before a panel of local justices and passed the bar. The Union was amazed: Citizen Carlson had become Assemblyman and Attorney Carlson overnight.

In March 1893, with his triumphant legislative term ending, Carlson became a last minute entrant in the mayor’s race. He conducted a whirlwind campaign, talking to every voter in sight. And he made many promises: a direct railroad to the East, the harbor bustling with steamships from every land, streetcars on every street, a world class city park, and high paying jobs for all. To the amazement of nearly everyone, he beat his nearest opponent by two to one. Historian William Smythe explained that “ordinarily level headed people were so much amused by his meteoric canvas that they voted for him just to see what he would do.” Such sunny optimism was probably a welcome respite from the city’s prevailing post-boom gloom. At age 28, he remains the youngest person ever elected mayor.

However, storm clouds were forming. Within weeks, the Panic of 1893 ushered in a nationwide depression. It would drag on for years. A more direct blow was the Governor’s veto of the Sea Wall Bill. Carlson had depended upon this project to improve the city and put people to work. Undaunted, he eliminated some unnecessary city jobs to fulfill his pledge to reign in extravagant city spending. However, this popular move was rescinded when the City Council proved that the Mayor didn’t have the authority to arbitrarily eliminate jobs. This set the pattern for the next four years, with the Council routinely vetoing Carlson’s proposals.

As mayor, Carlson promoted a railroad from San Diego to Phoenix, through the rugged backcountry. Holding a mass rally at Fisher’s Opera House, thousands of small property owners, stirred by his vision of San Diego as a great Pacific rail terminus, plunked down $1 for each lot they owned. Although the $5,000 collected got the project started, Carlson knew something was missing. Leaving town during the Christmas holidays, he secretly headed to Mexico City and met with President Diaz. Upon his return, he announced he had obtained permission to use a gentler route to Yuma and points East, through northern Baja. Although his coup seemed to ensure his railroad’s success, it was not to be. With less than 10 miles of track laid, funding dried up. It would take San Francisco magnate John D. Spreckels, with his vast resources, to take full advantage of Carlson’s “Mexican Concession” for his Arizona Eastern Railroad, completed 25 years later.

As his first term ended, Carlson alleged that, despite the hard times, the city was operating in the black. He maintained that improvements had gone forward and that “[I have] done my duty on behalf of the people without fear of the City Council.” The voters apparently agreed with his assessment. He won reelection by an even greater margin than before.

When however relations with the new City Council remained as contentious as before (one Councilman even sought to reduce Carlson’s meager salary for each day he was out of town) Billy decided to run for Congress. The boost in salary alone (from $6 to $50,000 annually) was an obvious incentive. But he faced an articulate and effective campaigner in Republican incumbent W.W. Bowers. Again running as an Independent, Carlson proposed public works projects (including a new Post Office building in every town) to reduce unemployment. He was so sure of victory that he induced old friend and business partner David C. Reed to run for mayor in his place. However, when Carlson came up short against Bowers that November, he kept his name on the mayoral ballot, perhaps to avoid becoming a lame duck. All the same, he proclaimed his support for Reed and mounted a lackluster campaign.

The 1897 election highlighted antagonisms between Carlson and Elisha Babcock. Both gentlemen had developed successful seaside resorts during the boom, although Babcock’s was much grander. Babcock then sold his Hotel Del Coronado and his water company to Spreckels, but stayed on to manage Spreckels’ local properties, including The San Diego Union. Carlson and Babcock even collaborated, for a time, on the Phoenix Railroad.

Babcock’s determination to obtain the city water contract for Spreckels’ company became a key campaign issue. Although the candidates generally favored Spreckels’ company, Babcock sought certainty. He distrusted Reed because of his initial opposition, and mayor Carlson sometimes opposed Spreckels’ interests. But when Babcock sat down and reasoned with Carlson, he seemed willing to withdraw in favor of Spreckels’ candidate. Except Carlson didn’t withdraw. Babcock’s Union retaliated with a scathing last minute condemnation of Carlson, characterizing him as a liar, fraud, bamboozler and fool. Although hurtful, Carlson’s recent run for congress had probably already convinced voters he’d lost interest in local government. While Carlson finished third, his friend, D.C. Reed, won handily; Babcock’s candidate finished a distant fourth. (Between them, Reed and Carlson actually collected 64 percent of the vote—hardly a rejection of Carlson’s agenda.)

But Carlson would get the last word. He staged his own mock political funeral, delivering a eulogy before an open grave in Horton Plaza. He also mentioned that his splendid Phoenix Railroad would have succeeded, except for Babcock’s withdrawn of support at a critical time.

While he hadn’t fulfilled most of his promises, Carlson could point to some important accomplishments. He had proven a gracious host to visiting celebrities, such as Marshall Field, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Adlai Stevenson (the elder), Vice President of the United States, all on his paltry mayor’s salary. He also played important roles in several events that foreshadowed San Diego’s future. The federal government allotted $50,000 for a jetty at the bay entrance at Carlson’s urging. Also, on Washington’s Birthday 1897 Carlson and San Diego hosted a large naval display which marked the “Navy’s first real interest in San Diego,” according to historian Richard Pourade. As a last minute gesture, he obtained state legislative approval of $100,000 for a Normal School (a Teacher’s College) which became San Diego State University. And his “Mexican Concession” smoothed the way for Spreckels’ later railroad to Yuma.

Carlson soon left town to pursue real estate and railroad promotions in Los Angeles, Alaska and, after the Spanish-American War, Cuba. One Cuban land deal involved vast tracts of acreage. In this one project alone over a million dollars in gold changed hands. A high point came in 1899, when he was made Chief of Federal Customs for the new Spanish possessions during the McKinley Administration. Carmen and their four sons stayed in San Diego during this time, residing in her father’s house. Perhaps they witnessed the event that brought the curtain down on the Carlson era. One cool night in late 1898 a chandelier crashed to the floor, setting Cliff House ablaze. Its dying glow could be seen from downtown.

Although the family reunited and settled in Pasadena after 1900, the new century didn’t bring them good fortune. It began with a great personal tragedy. Six-year-old Joseph died of a throat ailment in 1900. Then William Jr., at the age of 24, perished during a 1915 auto race, just as he was making a name for himself. There were other low points. Carlson was charged with embezzlement after an ill-advised banking venture in 1908. Yet Carlson, still a more than capable attorney, was able to convinced the jury to forgive his sloppy bookkeeping.

Yet he wasn’t so lucky a second time. Selling desert properties by mail for unbelievably low prices, the far-flung investors eventually compared notes and found Carlson had failed to provide promised returns on their investments. He was apprehended in 1917, as he crossed into Arizona from Mexico, and from there was sent to Los Angeles to stand trial for mail fraud. He pled his case well, asserting “a man is honest as long as he intends to be honest,” which probably reflects his true beliefs. Yet Carlson really lived much of his life as a lie, beginning with his biggest lie, the denial of his own foreign birth. He could never be completely truthful, even if he wanted to be. When the jury heard he wasn’t even able to prove that he held title to the desert properties, they lost all sympathy. Carlson was sentenced to four years at the McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in Washington State, where he toiled as the prison laundryman. He only did half the time, gaining early release in May 1920.

After the 1929 Wall Street Crash, Carlson asked the legislature to reimburse money he had loaned for San Diego harbor improvements while he was Mayor. The legislature paid him $6,274.35 for money due. Encouraged, he next approached his old nemesis, the San Diego City Council, and asked for a job. His request was tabled, and then forgotten. In the throes of the Great Depression, there were no jobs to spare for a former Mayor, felon or not. He returned to Pasadena, where he lived out his final years. He died from a stroke as he worked on one last real estate venture, in July 1937. Carmen passed away several days later, just three months shy of their 50th Wedding Anniversary. Neither plot has a gravestone; none was ever purchased. The grave of the once immensely popular two-term mayor of San Diego, and founder of Ocean Beach, bears no marker to signify his time upon this earth.



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