I didn’t write the passage below, but thought it a great collection of info on Hurdy-Gurdies and Dancing Halls during the mining boom, a colorful part of western mining towns, one that started off for the most part as wholesome entertainment.
In the first years after the California gold rush of 1848, the first saloons and dance halls of the West were tents or primitive cabins with pounded dirt floors, but quick prosperity soon created a range of styles and degrees of elegance, so that by the late ‘7Os and early ‘8Os, establishments of luxury and opulence vied for the attention — and the money — of the miners.
The lure of money and gold soon brought the amenities of civilization, meaning more available women, drugs, gaming, and entertainment. The mining and trail towns of the West, such as Leadville, Cripple Creek, Deadwood, Tombstone, and Abilene, soon earned unsavory reputations as sinks of depravity, and while they probably could not compare to the contemporary urban scene, they were truly wild by 19th century standards. Large mobile populations, free of the restraints of family, anonymous, with no reputations to protect, created an environment of violent death, unbridled morals, and general rowdiness to match. Many of the dance hall girls as well as the men fell prey to death in the violent gunfights, venereal disease, and the widespread use of such narcotics as opium and laudanum.
“Fights in Leadville kept life from being monotonous,” a local historian wrote. “Misunderstandings ended in knifings, shootings, and free-for-alls. Men fought on the streets, in saloons, in dance halls, in hotels, at the theatres.”
By most accounts, the earliest dance hall girls were considered good girls, at least by Western standards. The very first women in the mining camps of California were German girls who were called hurdy-gurdy girls after the musical instruments of the same name, and the name also became attached to the dance hall. While a long way from virginal status, the first girls were so prized that they did not have to participate in prostitution. Because they were so few, women in the early dance halls were expected to follow a respectable code of behavior and men were expected to keep their distance. One old miner recalled seeing a sign in a hurdy-gurdy house: “A SKIRT IS A SKIRT AND MUST BE RESPECTED AS SUCH!” The owner of the Alhambra, a hall in Silverton, Colorado, posted the following set of rules:
Rule 1. No lady will leave the house during evening working hours without permission.
Rule 2. No lady will accompany a gentleman to his lodgings.
Rule 3. No kicking at the orchestra, especially from the stage.
Rule 4. Every lady will be required to dance on the floor after the show.
Rule 5. No fighting or quarrelling will be allowed.
As competition grew rapidly, the fine line between prostitution and the dance hall thinned, blurred, and finally disappeared.