“Sometimes too much drink is barely enough.” — Mark Twain
Well, there just ain’t no talkin’ about the Old West, without mentioning the dozens, no hundreds – er, thousands of saloons of the American West. The very term “saloon” itself, conjures up a picture within our minds of an Old West icon, complete with a wooden false front, a wide boardwalk flanking the dusty street, a couple of hitchin’ posts, and the always present swinging doors brushing against the cowboy as he made his way to the long polished bar in search of a whiskey to wet his parched throat.
When America began its movement into the vast West, the saloon was right behind, or more likely, ever-present. Though places like Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico already held a few Mexican cantinas, they were far and few between until the many saloons of the West began to sprout up wherever the pioneers established a settlement or where trails crossed.
The first place that was actually called a “saloon” was at Brown’s Hole near the Wyoming–Colorado–Utah border. Established in 1822, Brown’s Saloon catered to the many trappers during the heavy fur trading days.
Saloons were ever popular in a place filled with soldiers, which included one of the West’s first saloons at Bent’s Fort, Colorado in the late 1820s; or with cowboys, such as Dodge City, Kansas; and wherever miners scrabbled along rocks or canyons in search of their fortunes. When gold was discovered near Santa Barbara, California in 1848, the settlement had but one cantina. However, just a few short years later, the town boasted more than 30 saloons. In 1883, Livingston, Montana, though it had only 3,000 residents had 33 saloons.
The first western saloons really didn’t fit our classic idea of what a saloon looks like, but rather, were hastily thrown together tents or lean-to’s where a lonesome traveler might strike up a conversation, where a cowman might make a deal, or a miner or a soldier might while away their off-hours. However, as the settlement became more populated, the saloon would inevitably prosper, taking on the traditional trimmings of the Old West.
In those hardscrabble days, the whiskey served in many of the saloons was some pretty wicked stuff made with raw alcohol, burnt sugar, and a little chewing tobacco. No wonder it took on such names as Tanglefoot, Forty-Rod, Tarantula Juice, Taos Lightning, Red Eye, and Coffin Varnish.
Also popular was Cactus Wine, made from a mix of tequila and peyote tea, and Mule Skinner, made with whiskey and blackberry liquor. The house rotgut was often 100 proof, though it was sometimes cut by the barkeep with turpentine, ammonia, gunpowder or cayenne.
The most popular term for the libation served in saloons was Firewater, which originated when early traders were selling whiskey to the Indians. To convince the Indians of the high alcohol content, the peddlers would pour some of the liquor on the fire, as the Indians watched the fire begin to blaze.
But the majority of western saloon regulars drank straight liquor — rye or bourbon. If a man ordered a “fancy” cocktail or “sipped” at his drink, he was often ridiculed unless he was “known” or already had a proven reputation as a “tough guy.” Unknowns, especially foreigners who often nursed their drinks, were sometimes forced to swallow a fifth of 100 proof at gunpoint “for his own good.”
Saloons also served up volumes of beer, but in those days the beer was never ice-cold, usually served at 55 to 65 degrees. Though the beer had a head, it wasn’t sudsy as it is today. Patrons had to knock back the beer in a hurry before it got too warm or flat.
It wasn’t until the 1880’s that Adolphus Busch introduced artificial refrigeration and pasteurization to the U.S. brewing process, launching Budweiser as a national brand. Before then, folks in the Old West didn’t expect their beer to be cold, accustomed to the European tradition of beer served at room temperature
In virtually every mining camp and prairie town, a poker table could be found in each saloon, surrounded by prospectors, lawmen, cowboys, railroad workers, soldiers, and outlaws for a chance to tempt fortune and fate.
Faro was by far the most popular and prolific game played in Old West saloons, followed by Brag, Three-card-monte and dice games such as High-low, Chuck-a-luck, and Grand Hazard. Before long many of the Old West mining camps such as Deadwood, Leadville, and Tombstone became as well known for gunfights over card games than they did for their wealth of gold and silver ore.
Professional gamblers such as Doc Holliday and Wild Bill Hickok learned early to hone their six-shooter skills at the same pace as their gambling abilities. Taking swift action upon the green cloth became part of the gamblers’ code – shoot first and ask questions later.
Eventually, there was every type of saloon that one could imagine. There were gambling saloons, restaurant saloons, billiard saloons, dancehall saloons, bowling saloons, and, of course, the ever-present, plain ole’ fashioned, “just drinking” saloons. They took on names such as the First Chance Saloon in Miles City, Montana, the Bull’s Head in Abilene, Kansas and the Holy Moses in Creede, Colorado. In many of the more populated settlements, these saloons never closed, catering to their ever-present patrons 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Some didn’t even bother to have a front door that would close.
In almost every saloon, one could depend on seeing the long paneled bar, usually made of oak or mahogany, and polished to a splendid shine. Encircling the base of the bar would be a gleaming brass foot rail with a row of spittoons spaced along the floor next to the bar. Along the ledge, the saloon patron would find towels hanging so that they might wipe the beer suds from their mustaches. Most saloons included some kind of gambling including such games as Chuck-A-Luck, Three-Card-Monte, Faro, and usually an on-going game of poker.
Decorations at these many saloons varied from place to place but most often reflected the ideals of the customers. In the cowtowns of the prairies, one might see steer horns, spurs, and saddles adorning the walls, while in the mountains, a customer would be met by the glazing eyes of taxidermied deer or elk. Often, there was the infamous nude painting of a woman hanging behind the bar.