Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Let's Talk About Old West Saloons

Saloons were known as watering holes, shebangs, cantinas, grogshops, gin mills, fandangos, and many more interesting terms. While there were those who spent a great deal of money and effort to make them as opulent as possible, there were those that were little more than crooked casinos, brothels, opium dens, and places that would have been better torn down. Many did attract outlaws, shady gamblers, con artists, men on the run, and the dregs of society that I have spoken of on other occasions. Yes indeed, there were saloons that preyed on the innocent and the naive in most cases.

Some travelers who entered saloons in mining camps in the California Gold Country during the Gold Rush were never seen again. Decades later their bones may or may not be found. Such a thing happened in Calaveras County, California, in the 1920s when a rancher digging post holes stumbled on a number of skulls. Later, it was found out that they were all murder victims. Young men mostly. They vanished. And no one knows who owned the saloon they were in when they were waylaid, robbed, and murdered.

Of course, the same thing happened in many places in the West. And of course, there were those rough and tumble saloons where patrons may have had to fight their way to the door to get out without being cleaned out or killed. And while brawls were common and gunplay in saloons was actually fairly rare, there were those who were rolled in an ally for everything that had.

Saloons were different and had different vices. Some were very violent while others took every precaution to ensure that they were not. There were notorious saloons where a bartender may slip someone a "Mickey Finn" to knock them out and rob them or Shanghaiing them by selling them to a waiting ship as was popular on the Barbary Coast of San Francisco. I have written in the past about the seedy sorts, the unemployed, the drifters, the bummers like the young Wyatt Earp who was a thorn in the side of local lawmen, those who were asked to leave told with a Vigilance Committee's necktie coaxing them to do so.

We all know of the prostitutes, the crooked gamblers, the cheats, the outlaws, the con artists, the wannabe tough guys who were like Doc Holliday who spun tales of how tough he was by boasting about the number of men he had killed. In Holliday's case, he made the dregs of society that hung around saloons believe that he had killed at least 16 men. And no, even though most towns that he was in over the years had newspapers, there are no stories of his killing anyone except for the story in the Tombstone Nugget and the Tombstone Epitaph about his killing Tom McLaury during what is now called the gunfight near the OK Corral.

So yes, we know that many saloons were in many cases just clip-joints and dives. Well, let's talk about the other side of the story when it comes to saloons. During the Old West, as surprising as it sounds, not everyone drank to excess, gambled their wages away, cheated someone, Shanghaied a traveler, or lost their claims or ranches on a hand of poker. While I can't say what the percentage of them were up-and-up, there were saloons that were more than just holes in the wall for hangouts for outlaws. The fact is, many were social centers where people just hung out and socialized. In contrast, a respectable saloon may position people to monitor their employees -- the same as what goes on today in modern casinos.

We all know that Mexican cantinas could be found in California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Texas, in the Indian Territory, and elsewhere when Americans first arrived on the scene. But saloons were a tradition that Americans brought West. And socializing in saloons is a tradition that goes back to when we were still England's colonies and men gathered in what was known as "public houses" or what we know today as "pubs."

Pubs are places that are licensed to serve alcohol for consumption on the premises. There were "private houses" or "private clubs," but "public houses" first came about in the late 17th-century as inns, alehouses, and taverns. So where did the term "saloon" come from? In England, a separate gaming or entertainment room, sometimes large enough for huge gatherings was called a "salon." A form of salon was a "large hall in a public place for entertainment" such as singing, gaming, or sports including billiards.

There is a story about an 18th-century pub that had a salon, a large section for entertainment, in it where the establishment also had a duck pond open to its patrons. The story goes that their duck pond was at the back of their building, and for a small fee, drinkers could shoot at the ducks. Sounds like interesting entertainment.

Americans took the word "salon" and changed it over time. It is believed that the first saloon West of the Mississippi River was established at Brown's Hole, Wyoming, in 1822. It was built to serve fur trappers. By 1841, the term saloon was much more widespread and pretty much evolved into its present-day meaning of a place where drinking, card games, billiards, singing, and dancing could be had. Saloons became specialized places of entertainment such as dance halls, gambling halls, card rooms, music halls, theaters having all sorts of acts including what became known as "variety shows." Some places offered stage acts such as minstrel shows, dramas, and comedies. All while patrons were served drinks and meals at their tables.

Saloons were built to attract men. While some started out only being able to accommodate a few men at a time, the ones that prospered grew over time. They catered to working men with money. They sought miners, soldiers, lumberjacks, businessmen, merchants, salesmen, clerks, blacksmiths, sailors, and every other sort of occupation depending on their location. If they were on the Barbary Coast of San Francisco, they catered to ship's crews, seamen, stevedores, shippers, and travelers. If they were in a boomtown, they targeted miners and merchants. Cattle town saloons flourished during the trail drives on cowhands and their money. Of course, saloons were just one of the many businesses that struck it rich during the cattle drives and the mining booms. Most made a lot of money until the boom went bust.

As for working ranchhands who lived and worked on a ranch near a town? After sitting a saddle all day during gatherings or doing one of the many tasks it takes to keep a ranch in shape, believe it or not, most cowhands were known to try to catch up on needed sleep. So no, cowboys didn't usually stray off their ranch and ride 10 or 20 miles just to have to ride back 10 or 20 miles to work before morning. Because of the distance from towns of most ranches, most cowhands stayed on their ranch until Saturday night or Sunday.

I was asked recently if saloons were all dirty seedy places on the frontier? Not all. Most may have started in a tent with water barrels holding up a few boards as a "bar" and maybe a single table, but the idea was to grow their business. Square, false-front, wooden structures, in the beginning, were a step up from the tents. But frankly, they used tent material as roofing. The idea was to keep the customers dry and content so that they would stick around and buy drinks. As for tents, they had dirt floors. Wooden buildings usually had floors made of wood, some even made sure they had crawl spaces so that they would be able to harvest spilled gold dust. And also, there were methods of stealing from the boss that we will go into some other time.

While it's said that the only thing good about early saloon offered was bad whiskey and a place to sit a spell, most tried to be clean well-lit friendly places. Yes, they tried to be friendly. And yes, I will be talking about that in a moment or two.

While most attempted to emulate the plush pubs and taverns found in the East, there were saloons completely unique and reflected the West. It's true, while there were places with fancy wallpaper and very plush, others adorned their saloons with buffalo heads, LongHorn cattle horns, antlers, and stuffed-game of all sorts and sizes. Of course, there were saloons with paintings of naked women behind the bar. But most actually placed mirrors behind the bar, and there was a reason for that. It was for the bartender's safety. Mirrors enabled a bartender to watch his back when he turned away from the customers and faced the register.

As for targeting customers? Saloons sprang up where the people were. The idea of some lone saloon out in the middle of nowhere was unheard of. And before someone writes to remind me about Judge Roy Bean's Jersey Lilly and how it sat in the middle of nowhere, let's remember that it didn't start out that way. 

Roy Bean arrived during the completion of the railroad through that area and erected a small tent saloon on railroad company land. He later built the famous wooden structure that we all know today. After the railroad workers left, he hung in there and used the saloon as his headquarters when he became an authorized Justice of the Peace and notary public. He called himself the "Law West of the Pecos." Of course, that is the other aspect of saloons that some folks forget about, as in most cases, because of their size and ability to hold large gatherings, whether it was in mining camps or in boomtowns, larger saloons were used as places to hold court proceedings. 

Saloons in cattle towns at the end of the trail catered to cowhands flush with cash coming off months on the trail. After a cowhand would get a shave, haircut, bath, buy new clothes, boots, hat, maybe a new saddle, and his horse, he would finally hit the saloons. Saloons near forts targeted soldiers and loved their paydays. Mining boomtowns attempted to get as much gold and silver out of the pockets of miners. And of course, they all attempted to squeeze the general public for as much as they could while their competitions did the same. As for saloons being safe, comfortable, clean, well-lit, friendly places, we forget that saloons did everything they could to make their places welcoming. An unwelcoming saloon died of lack of customers no different than they do today.

Saloons were business and huge investments. Because of that, we should remember that owners would provide security, but also attempted to entice and bribe local lawmen to hang out in their place so they would have a "badge" present. We've all heard the story of Wild Bill Hickok hanging out in the saloon gambling more than doing his job as a lawman. That was probably the reason he wasn't a lawman very long both times that he wore a badge.

As with any business out to make money off the public, saloon owners came up with novelty ideas like having a piano, barbershop quartet singing, small orchestras, and even offered free lunches to draw customers into their saloon. 

The "free lunch" was a gimmick to draw customers. Saloons offered a sandwich at no cost. The idea was that it would attract customers and increase revenues while also stealing customers from other saloons that didn't offer the same. For years, it was not uncommon for customers to enter a saloon, make themselves a sandwich with all the fixings, and have a beer for a nickel. 

Believe it or not, it was a tradition that was once commonplace in saloons throughout the West. Most saloons that offered a "free lunch" only required that the customer pays for one drink. The hope, and really the expectation, on the part of the owner, was that most customers would buy more than one drink. Of course, there was what most of us know as the "bum's rush." That was a practice of a barman or bouncer grabbing someone by the pants and shirt and tossing them out the door. It is what would happen when a vagrant entered a saloon, hoping to take advantage of a "free lunch" counter which was meant for drinkers only. Yes, there were freeloaders in the Old West as well. In those days, they would be forcibly removed from the premises.

Other than dealing with bums, trouble-makers, and freeloaders, building "Good Will" was not unheard of in the business world even back then. The free lunch was used as a way to build patronage and help establish a welcoming reputation. Saloon owners knew that "word-of-mouth" could kill their establishment. That's why saloons employed bouncers. That's what they did what they could to make their places enjoyable but not avoidable. Like most businesses today, owners were worried about their reputations and acted in ways so to not to push customers away. Frankly, it's a concept that seems lost on many businesses today. Some businesses today seem to be going out of their way to alienate their customer base.

In the first saloons, especially before the Eastern distillers started shipping the "good stuff" West, rot-gut poor-quality liquor, the stuff that had was potentially toxic, was everywhere. Known under dozens of different names including Cactus Juice, Bottled Courage, Snake Bite, Gun Oil, Firewater, Tanglefoot, Dynamite, Forty-Rod, Red Eye, Coffin Varnish, Tarantula Juice, Taos Lightning, or simply Bug Juice, most of the rot-gut whiskey was 100 proof and used the same formula of combining raw alcohol, burnt sugar, water, and chewing tobacco for that caramel color. To give it an extra "kick," some owners were known to cut a batch with ammonia, turpentine, cayenne, and even gunpowder.

The hazards of drinking rot-gut whiskey were not lost on those buying drinks. To stop from drinking the rot-gut whiskey offered in most places, customers were known to request mixed cocktail concoctions. While some were simply whiskey and water, others were fairly elaborate. One such cocktail was blackberry liquor and whiskey. Some say that concoction is known as a Mule Skinner. While real wine was popular, including Sangria, a popular drink known as Cactus Wine which was a combination of tequila and peyote tea.

As for beer? Beer on the frontier was served at room temperature since refrigeration was not invented yet. It's true. Unlike Americans today, no one back in the day expected their glass to be ice-cold. It was Adolphus Busch who introduced refrigeration and pasteurization of beer in 1880 with his Budweiser brand. Before refrigeration, saloon owners tried various ways of keeping beer as cool as possible. For example, in some places, beer kegs were stored in root sellers with the wine. Some saloons kept the beer in kegs stored behind the bar and far away from the woodstove. Some saloons actually made their own beer. This was especially true in German communities.

So now, if it was a place that picked up the reputation of serving food that made customers sick or serving "rot-gut booze" made in the backroom, then a place can go under from lack of people walking in the door. If a saloon was too seedy and gained a reputation as a "clip joint" where customers were cheated, customers stayed away. If it was a place prone to attracting badmen and outlaws and garnered a reputation of not being very safe, then customers stayed away.

Keep in mind that, like the public houses, the inns, and taverns in the East, these were social centers where people gathered. It was there that men discussed topics ranging from cattle prices to news events while trying to relax. If they didn't feel safe, secure, or comfortable, they went somewhere else -- no differently than we do today. Think about this, when was the last time you went to a place known for drug dealers and a criminal element or patronized a place known to have been closed down by the health department? When was the last time you decided to go to a place that you may have heard was known for trouble, had bad service, lousy food, or was filthy?

People are people and the fact is that life was not very different in the Old West in that respect. As for avoiding trouble, most did that for reasons of safety no different than we do today. And before you write to me to say that towns were limited to only one or two saloons, keep in mind that that wasn't the way it was in the Old West -- especially in railheads and boomtowns.

For example, I visited Tombstone, Arizona, in the late-1980s and was extremely surprised at how small it was. I remember being very surprised to find out that Tombstone had 20 saloons by 1880 which was just a year after Schieffelin struck silver there. But here's more, according to the Tombstone Chamber of Commerce, by 1881, "Tombstone was home to more than 100 saloons, a multitude of eateries, a huge red-light district, a larger popular of Chinese, newspapers, churches, schools, and one of the original Arizona community swimming pools, which is still being used today."

So really, the hard-working people of Tombstone had a choice of where they wanted to spend their money. Were there those who wanted to buck the tiger at a faro table? Absolutely. And as we know, there were saloons that had gambling, but not all did. As for someone wanting to gamble, they didn't have to go to some clip-joint that was known for cheating folks. By 1881, they had more than 100 others to choose from. So it's not as if they had to go to just one place to try their luck.

And if you're thinking that not all boomtowns had more than 100 saloons at their peak, most had a lot more saloons than most think. Some towns had less and some had more. For example, we've all heard of Dodge City, Kansas, in the 1870s had its famous Long Branch Saloon. But it's a fact that the Long Branch Saloon was just one of more than 20 other saloons in that town during Dodge City's rowdy days.

In the settlement of Leavenworth, Kansas, there were more than 150 saloons in the 1880s. As for the boomtown of Virginia City, Nevada, by the late 1870s, it had 30,000 residents and over 150 saloons. During the Alaska Gold Rush, Skagway is said to have had as many as 80 saloons in 1897. In Nome, Alaska, in 1901, there were over 46 saloons. It's no wonder Wyatt Earp's Nome's saloon didn't make it with that sort of competition.

If you look at which ones lasted the test of time. The clip joints, those shady holes in the wall, those places where good hard-working folks felt threatened and didn't patronize, they didn't last and died. Mostly, it was purely business. Most seedy places simply couldn't stay afloat if all they did was cater to the dregs of society when trying to stay afloat. And here's something else, for the most part, saloons were men's clubs. While one would find a saloon girl serving or cooking, or a "shady lady" attempting to ply their trade, women did not enter saloons as customers until after World War I.

So now, I hope that I've answered the question about saloons that many of you have put to me. While Hollywood would love to make us think that every saloon was the same and that they were all simply places filled with killers and card-cheats, that's not true. Not all saloons in the Old West were seedy joints, honky-tonks which was not what a classy place was called, or places where shootings took place routinely.

As I said earlier, when looking at the evidence of shootings in saloons, they were very rare. And frankly, that's the same reason why murders in the Old West made such big news, they were very rare and were seen as a cause for outrage. They were an affront to civilized behavior and people didn't put up with it. In reality, the town's gallows were no different than a saloons' spittoon. Both were used to keep folks civilized. One was used to keep badmen in check while the other was used to ensure folks didn't spit on the floor. 

As social centers, saloons were the place to go for a man to relax and hear the latest news and gossip. As I said before, brawls took place. But it was not unheard of for fistfights to spill outside into a street where the combatants could slug it out in the manure. 

Did the fights sort of flow that way? No. Saloons employed bouncers to make sure that such things were taken outside. Bouncers were known to bounce brawlers out the swinging doors using the same "bum's rush" they used on vagrants. Let's remember, saloon owners had an investment to protect. So instead of allowing brawlers to bust up the furniture, which was very expensive to replace, and bother the customers, brawlers were usually shown the door.

That was the real Old West.

Tom Correa


  1. When it comes to the topic of Old West saloons, one has to think of places such as the Long Branch or the Lady Gay or even the Silver Dollar. Towns such as Dodge City, Tombstone, or even Deadwood. Figures such as Matt Dillon or even Rhett Butler. These places served alcohol and entertainment. You got your chance of sharing a bed with a "soiled dove". The bartender almost always kept a shotgun behind the bar and brawls were common. Poker was played occasionally. Murders in saloons were rare but when they did happen, there were few witnesses. And the liquor would flow like a river. Liquor with names such as "Devil's Breath." "Mule Ear". "Panther's Piss." And even "Mother's Milk". The bartender was almost always named Joe, Bud, or Sam. Especially in the Spaghetti Westerns. Gunfights however rarely happened in the saloon and it wasn't anything like in the movies. It was much bloodier than what you'll see on TV. And the law didn't always show up in time. So yeah. Hate to spoil it for ya, but life in an Old West saloon was not your Candyland type of place. It was real. And it was raw. And it was bad. Thank god I'm not the one who has to pour the drinks. Cuz I'll say this friend. I don't even wanna know what you're having. Cheers. May God be with ya. Salute.

  2. Hollywood has mostly eliminated Spitoons, Bar rags and Cash Registers. Yet all three were very common in many saloons. Kansas had voted in prohibition around 1880, but it was rarely enforced. In 1903, Carrie Nation, shutdown the last saloon in Burlington. However, in Valley Falls saloons continued th thrive. Neither town was a wild place. No renowned gamblers or hard cases of fame frequented either town. Burlington had a shooting in 1901 but bodily was hurt. Both men got on the next train and never returned.


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