Thursday, November 11, 2010

Old West saloons

Until they were closed down with the introduction of Prohibition in 1919, saloons were the social center of life in frontier towns. Drinking and gambling (usually faro) were the chief forms of recreation, and the place was a clearing house of local news.

Men playing faro, Arizona saloon, 1895
In settlements populated almost entirely by men, they were more than a place to hang out, "where everybody knows your name." They were a social institution that was never fully restored with the repeal of Prohibition in the 1930s. I got to thinking about all this looking at photos of old saloons, and thought I'd share some here to kind of revive their memory.

First up is the Toll Gate Saloon in Black Hawk, Colorado, 1897. Notice the arched windows, swinging front doors, stove in foreground, and wooden floor. Over the center mirror are three mounted animal heads. The shelves behind the bartender are lined with liquor bottles, and there's a brass spittoon at the foot rail, where a variety of stains indicate the bad aim of previous customers. What the hanging towel is for, I'm not sure.

Toll Gate Saloon, Blackhawk, Colorado, 1897

Next up is a bar from the 1880s in the Columbian Hotel, Trinidad, Colorado. Notice all the carved wood, the decorated ceiling with painted scenes around the edge. There are stuffed pheasants behind the man at the center of the photo. 

Bar in Columbian Hotel, Trinidad, Colorado, 1880s
A gas lamp hangs overhead, and there's a spittoon or two under the brass foot rail, where you can see more tell-tale stains. There's an oriental rug on the floor and more towels hanging from the bar. With so many things for the eye to see, can you imagine what all this looked like at night lit by gaslight?

Now get ready for some exotic bar furniture. Below is the Kinman Bar in the hotel-saloon in Table Bluff, Humboldt County, California, 1889. Notice the bear fur chair, the antler-rack chair (looks like a device from a torture chamber), and what looks like a bear-head seat on the right. There are more antlers on the walls. The photo hanging at the far right is of Seth Kinman, who designed and built the furniture.

 Hotel Saloon in Table Bluff, Humboldt County, California, 1889

Next is the courthouse and saloon in Langtry, Texas, where self-styled Judge Roy Bean (1825-1903) was the "Law West of the Pecos." In the photo, taken circa 1900, he is said to be trying a horse thief. The horse in question stands to the far left. Bean rarely hanged a man and preferred fines, which he then pocketed. The saloon, which continues to stand today, was called the Jersey Lillie in honor of British actress Lillie Langtry (1853-1929).

Saloon and courthouse, Langtry, Texas, 1900
There's another Jersey Lillie, by the way, in little Ingomar, in central Montana, named after the one made famous by Judge Roy Bean. It's between Roundup and Forsyth on Route 12. The original building was a bank, built in 1912. The back bar came from St. Louis c. 1900, was stored during Prohibition, and given a new life there in 1933 after Prohibition ended.

Following is the Horseshoe, regarded as Seattle's "most elegant saloon" at the time, 1900. Notice again the fancy woodwork, the high ceilings and suspended lighting. A huge mounted animal with massive antlers looks down from the wall.

Horseshoe Saloon, Seattle, Washington, 1900

From the elegant to the rustic, here is a more recent photograph of buildings in the ghost town of Shakespeare in Hidalgo County, New Mexico. Both seem to be adobe brick with tin roofs. The building in the background is the saloon. I would not like to take a mistep coming through the door and fall into that cactus.

Saloon in Shakespeare, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

The photo below is of Deadwood, South Dakota, with the building housing the Bella Union Saloon and Theatre in the center under the street banner. It was in business for only a few years in the late 1870s, and the building burned in the fire of 1879. It had a second fictionalized life in the HBO series, Deadwood.

Bella Union Saloon, Deadwood, South Dakota, 1870s

Next up is J.W. Swart's Saloon in Charleston, Arizona, in 1885. Scene of one heck of a lot of history in a short decade of existence, Charleston was the milling center for ore from Tombstone's silver mines. Its population peaked at about 400 around the time this photo was taken in 1885. Note the signage over the door: for two bits you could get a good start on tomorrow's hangover.

J. W. Swart's Saloon, Charleston, Arizona, 1885

Jacob W. Swart acquired the saloon in 1881 from reputed outlaw Frank Stilwell. Swart was later fined $1000 by the local justice of the peace, James Burnett, for shooting and killing a man. The year 1881 went down in Tombstone history as the year of the gunfight between the Earps and the Clantons. The Clanton's ranch, in fact, was located just five miles outside of Charleston. By the end of the decade the silver boom was over and the town was deserted.

Road House Saloon, Bluff City, Alaska, c1906

The men in the photo above have gathered for a drink in the Road House Saloon, in Bluff City, Alaska, circa 1906. Notice the no-frills decor. Someone has pounded together some planks for the bar, and the top looks like it could be oil cloth tacked along the edges of another plank. There's a plank floor, and not only do the tables not match, but the men seem to be using boxes for chairs.

Saloon, Everett, Washington, 1907
Last we have the interior of a saloon in Everett, Washington, 1907. Not as elaborate as some, but not as rough and ready as what passes for comfort in Alaska either. It has what looks like a patterned carpet on the floor and plenty of spittoons that look a bit like bedpans. The sign behind the bar at the far left advertises Hazelwood Rye Whiskey.

Further reading:
Judge Roy Bean
Jersey Lilley, Ingomar, Montana
Bella Union Saloon, Deadwood

Picture credits: and flickr commons

Coming up: A. B. Guthrie, Playing Catch-Up


  1. What great shots. Much more classy looking than I bet most people would assume.

  2. Now I really loved that post!... Bars and pubs, great!

  3. Great post about saloons, one of the favorite hangouts for cowboys when not out on the range. You mention the hanging towels in the beginning. They must have been for the customers to wipe their hands or the bar if they spilled a drink. Of course the bartender would have towels that he could use to clean the bar, so I guess the towels were for the drinkers.

    Where is Miss Kitty and her dance hall girls?

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  4. What strikes me about these places when one visits is how SMALL they are. I've been in quite a few in my day -- Garnet, Tombstone, Virginia City, Deadwood, etc. -- and the scale is so much smaller than what we usually have in our era. I always imagine just what the close, awful SMELL would have been like. Not for the squeamish, I'm certain.

  5. Fascinating. I was just reading about how important the tavern was to social and political life in early colonial america. Sounds like things didn't change much. Interesting contrasts between the elegant and the, shall we say, less than elegant.

  6. David, I think the upscale establishments during the gas-light era must have been something else.

    Cheyenne, it was a fun post to put together.

    Walker, since I've known more about saloons, I've become aware of how they are a standard feature of westerns.

    Chris, stale beer, cigar smoke, sweat...

    Charles, I get the impression that wherever there was more than one drinking establishment in a community, each had its own niche.

  7. There still are a few here in Montana, such as the New Atlas in Columbus, with more dead animals on the wall than people can count.

  8. Fascinating post, Ron. I've always wondered if the idea of the saloon being the social center of the town descended from the pub in England which serves the same purpose. But I've always understood that the "good women" of the town never stepped into the saloons. So what did they do instead?

  9. Richard, the dead animals seem to be required.

    Laurie, I don't know if the tavern came over on the Mayflower, but it arrived not much later. The good women, of course, had better things to do. Many joined the Temperance League.

  10. Hi Ron -

    I have been dying to get a hold of these saloon type photographs to reproduce for decor. Do you know where I can find these?

  11. Claudia, they are all public domain pics available at Search on "saloon."

  12. I came across your page while searching for info on saloons. My husband and I are building a bar in our home and would like to create a more saloon style feel. I find it really interesting that so many didn't have bar stools at the bar. I guess they just sat at the tables?