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W. S. Collins

W.S. Collins – Birth of Balboa Island

1889- 1902

William S. Collins was born in Marion, Indiana in 1863, and raised on farms in Liberty and Green, Indiana. He was primarily homeschooled, became a teacher and later a school principal while still in his twenties. In 1889, he moved with his young wife, Annie, and 3-year-old daughter, Bonibel, to Riverside, California, in hopes of improving Annie’s health. His parents moved with him to pursue farming in the rich soil that California had to offer. Unfortunately, Annie passed away that same year. Collins kept busy dabbling in a variety of businesses including citrus, oil, cycling, ice cream, and musical instruments. In 1891, he married Mary Ann Lukens, the daughter of a Riverside peach farmer. Over the next decade, he had four more children and settled into the real estate development business.



Collins and partner, A.C. Hanson, purchased most of Newport Bay and the sand spit (later Balboa Peninsula) from James McFadden – approximately 880 acres for $50,000. He was now the owner of Newport Beach Township and all the mud flats that would later become most of the islands in our bay.


1904 – 1905

Collins had ended his partnership with Hanson by 1904. In order to lure Henry Huntington, owner of the Pacific Electric Railway, into his venture, he offered Huntington an easement down the center of the spit and an interest in his business. Collins wanted Huntington’s Red Cars to reach Newport so he could sell lots to tourists who made their way down the rails from Los Angeles. Huntington agreed and the line reached West Newport Beach (at the wharf) in 1905. Huntington’s Red Car was the best way to travel from Los Angeles to Newport. The fare was $1 each way and the ride took about one hour.


In anticipation of its 1906 arrival in East Newport, the Balboa Pavilion and Balboa Pleasure Pier were built. The Pavilion would become the focal point of the Balboa Peninsula. It was originally built as a Victorian bathhouse and terminal for the Pacific Electric Red Car Line but soon became a destination throughout the southland for dancing and revelry. The pier had become a popular place to stroll and fish.


1906 – 1908

Collins began the task of dredging the bay to form Balboa Island. For eight years his dredger spits sand and silt up onto the existing mud flats. Large draft horses pulled heavy rakes to smooth and level the sand. When the dredging was finally complete, Collins had turned a 2-acre mud flat into a 35-acre island. In 1908, still, during the dredging process, the first homes were built on the higher, western side of the Island, including “The White Swan”, a home at Pearl Avenue and North Bayfront built for his third wife, Jessie. A handful of Collins’ realtors begin selling 30’ x 85’ lots – $300 for an inside lot, $600 for a bayfront lot. Collins needed to sell all 1,400 plotted lots in order to pay for the utilities and infrastructure promised to buyers. The East Newport area was renamed “Balboa”, by Mr. E.J. Lewis, then President of the Newport Bay Investment Co., in honor of the explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa.



The Festival of Lights was born on August 23, 1908, when Balboa’s gondolier, John Scarpa staged a small, illuminated parade with eight canoes and Scarpa‘s gondola, all lit by Japanese lanterns. In the 1920s, the parade was directed by Joe Beek, who called it the Tournament of Lights. Today the event takes place during the Christmas season and is a favorite holiday event for all of Orange County.



Collins built an “island villa” on Collins Island – Collins Castle. While still dredging, Collins began construction of 14” wooden bulkheads around the West End. These were later reinforced with the same cement used to build Collins Castle. That year, Collins filed the first plot map (West End) and began ferry service off Pearl Avenue. Collins secured a 2-foot strip around the Island for himself, so he could control the transport of visitors on and off the Island by his own ferryman, Captain John Watts, in his 10 passenger motorboat“The Teal”. He also made plans for a park in the middle of the Island, a casino on Channel Island (Little Island), a hotel on Moonstone Ave. (Grand Canal) and a race-car track just inside the Bay Front homes. Harbor boosters pressured him to dredge the Island smaller than his original plan, leaving more bay for sailors to enjoy. By 1912 all the plot maps were filed, including one with a street named for his new wife Apolena, and a wooden bridge was constructed on the North side of the Island. In 1913, Collins completed his dredging by carving out the Grand Canal.



Collins gave 28 lots on Little Island to the Covina Masonic Home for Orphans, known as Camp Collins, (later renamed Camp Tucker). The Covina Masons operated a residential home for orphans and children of absent parents. The lifeguard dock was an irresistible magnet for Camp Tucker Children.


The first sidewalks were laid in 1914, but lot sales had already peaked and began to fall due to the onset of WWI and poor Island conditions, including crumbling seawalls and flooding, mosquitos, poorly made sewers and a lack of water and power. Collins had sold half the lots on the Island and mortgaged most of the rest.



Collins dream had come to an end. He had failed to sell enough lots to complete the infrastructure and Collins Castle was deeded to his 4th wife, Apolena. Collins left California for Texas and later Wichita, Kansas, where he finally settled in and enjoyed a 25-year marriage to his fourth and final wife, Marie, until her passing in 1943. William S. Collins died in Wichita, Kansas on April 18, 1952, at the age of 88.



For Balboa Island, it was a slow road back, but a steady one. Lot owners agreed that the only way to recover was to become part of the City of Newport Beach, which had incorporated with Balboa in 1906. So, with a 1916 annexation to Newport Beach, Balboa Island had access to city utilities. Lot owners now had to pay taxes, and many decided to cut their losses and gave lots back to the bank. At this time, banks were selling lots for $25 to $50, the price of the tax bill. Now, enter the Balboa Island Improvement Association, formed in 1918 by a group of Island lot owners. A priority list was made, funding secured and we were on our way to becoming the beautiful Island we are today. And that 2-foot strip around the Island? When Collins didn‘t pay the taxes on that piece, three Island supporters purchased it and gave it to the City of Newport Beach, which, to this day, enables us to stroll around the Island and absorb the beauty of Newport Bay from our shores.


The New Balboa Island Museum pays homage to the island so many of us know, love and call home – and a place that continues to capture the imaginations and hearts of visitors the world over.


Hours of Operation: Monday – Thursday 10am to 5pm, Friday – Sunday 10am to 6pm

Admission: Free general admission on all days. We gladly accept cash donations!

Ask about our Kids Scavenger Hunt!

Parking: Two hour parking is available on Marine Ave. You can park in the surrounding neighborhood for the extended day.