You can’t pick up a western romance without it having some reference to the saloon. Saloons played a vital role in the western expansion. They filled a very human need. In addition to fulfilling the main role of quenching a man’s thirst, saloons were a place where cowboys could indulge in “cow talk” and where farmers and ranchers commiserated with each other about the weather/dry spells or floods. It was a place to get information on whatever subject you were needing to know about.
Saloons helped a man forget his loneliness and drown his troubles if only for a few hours. They offered entertainment, comfort, refuge, and refinement. And they were one of few places where a man could escape from his wife.
Saloons were all things to all men. And most times a cowboy didn’t have to look far to find one.
Silverton, Colorado held the distinction of having the “worst gaming street in Colorado history.” Blair Street boasted 40 saloons and dance halls, 27 gaming saloons, and 18 houses of ill repute. And that was only one street among several in the town. With all the establishments being open 24 hours a day sin ran non-stop.
Saloons reflected the financial health and customers of a town. In wealthier places they were fancy buildings with ornate furnishings. But on the prairie, watering holes were often sod houses or tents. Usually the mining towns where gold or silver was abundant they were opulent and refined.
Either next to or behind the saloons were liveries where the customers could leave their horses while they quenched their thirst. If they didn’t plan to linger in the saloon long, there were hitching rails in front. In the book, “Saloons of the Old West” by Richard Erdoes he said, “The town’s sheriff could read brands just as easily as a modern cop reads license plates, and he would take care of the “parking problem” if he saw a horse tied to the rack overnight.”
Most saloons were built shotgun style–real long but not very wide. That was to accommodate a long bar, many of which were 50 to 60 feet in length. Saloon proprietors often competed to see who could get the longest bar. Erickson’s Saloon in Portland, Oregon was a whopping 684 feet long and probably held the record. Breen’s in San Francisco is made from Brazilian mahogany and measures 72 feet long. It’s supposedly the longest in America today. Denver’s Albany was quite impressive with its 110 ft. counter backed by a flawless mirror of matching length. And it’s a given that saloons almost always had a picture of a naked lady somewhere over the bar.
A little known fact: The typical establishment had towels hanging at certain intervals along the edge of the counter so men could wipe the foam off their beards and mustaches if they needed to.
Some saloons, the fancier ones, had a barber chair tucked into a corner with a live barber on hand to cut hair and give shaves for those who were inclined to spruce up. It saved time I guess. A cowboy could eat, drink, have his hair cut and get a shave all without leaving the saloon. Pretty amazing to have all those services combined.
Oh, and various saloons also maintained letter boxes so their steady customers could receive their mail in there.
There was no legal drinking age, but normally a bartender wouldn’t serve unless a boy’s voice had changed.
A lot of history was made inside saloons. States were named, capitals founded, political candidates announced, elections held, and trials conducted. The saloon was the place to be evidently.
American Indians were barred from saloons by law. Blacks were tolerated. But another group wasn’t welcome—military soldiers. Soldiers were resented because they policed the early West. Cowpunchers also blamed soldiers, rightly or wrongly, for giving the working girls venereal disease. But I seriously doubt that.
Do you think books and movies accurately portray saloons? Do you have a favorite saloon scene you’d like to share? Or do you have a favorite hero/heroine (books or movies) who was a saloon owner?