One thing I like about reading historical romance is learning real history along with a great story. While doing research for my newest book I came across this “fun” fact that I just had to include in The Gunslinger and the Heiress.
Tillman Augustus Burnes, an Irishman known for his larger-than-life personality, grew up in San Francisco. There he came to appreciate the infamous Cobweb Palace at the end of Meiggs’ Wharf where spiders had transformed the saloon with swags of cobwebs decorating the ceiling and upper walls.
When ‘Till’ came south to San Diego for health reasons he got his first job at the Last Chance Saloon on 5th Street. He saved up his money until he could buy his own saloon, naming it The Phoenix, located just one block from the docks. He opened his doors for business in 1875 and started collecting spiders to decorate his new place. He also hunted and trapped small animals and birds in southern California to display in cages, and bought exotic animals off sailors coming from South America. At one time, his menagerie housed a coyote, a bear, an anteater, and a monkey, along with exotic birds.
The bear, Bruin, caused a few incidences quite honorable to a bear, but not appreciated by humans. Till chained him outside the saloon to a tree. One particularly hot day, a group of children taunted Bruin by poking him with sticks. Aroused from his nap and angered, the bear broke loose of his chain, scaring the children and creating havoc until a few men lassoed him. After that, Till had an iron cage built and brought the bear inside the saloon. That worked for a while, until a customer who liked Bruin and regularly let the bear lick the beer off his face fell out of favor with the bear and had the tip of his nose bit off. After that (and the ensuing lawsuit,) Bruin retired to Till’s home, far away from people who would bother him (and visa versa.)
Despite all the animals and spiders, Till prided himself on keeping a clean establishment. By 1885 the spiders had built a respectable foot-thick wall of webbing over the ceiling. Visitors came from far and wide to see the amazing zoo, stuffed animals, and the spiders at work. The Phoenix was a city landmark and sailors and captains alike made sure to stop there frequently. While running the saloon, Till started other ventures—a stage line down to Mexico and personally escorted tours into the back country.
Before one of these tours, his bartender became sick. Till learned of a bartender vacationing in the city and hired him on the spot and then left quickly on the scheduled tour. Ten days later he returned only to find the industrious man had cleaned out every last cobweb in the place, destroying his endeavor of ten years.
Of course nowadays the health commissioner would frown on such a place. But how about you? What is the most unusual sight you have come across in your travels?
Comment for a chance to win Kathryn’s newest book The Gunslinger and the Heiress. She’ll be giving away three copies today. (With apologies, but Continental United States only.)
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From her first breath, Kathryn Albright has had a passion for stories that celebrate the goodness in people. She combines her love of history and her love of a good story to write novels of inspiration, endurance, and hope. Visit her at www.kathrynalbright.com, on Facebook , Twitter, or Goodreads.