The Jersey Lilly, Judge Roy Bean's saloon in Langtry, Texas, c.1900.

A Western saloon is a kind of bar particular to the Old West. Saloons served customers such as fur trappers, cowboys, soldiers, prospectors, miners, and gamblers. The first saloon was established at Brown's Hole, Wyoming, in 1822, to serve fur trappers.[1]


A saloon's appearance varied from when and where it grew. As towns grew, the saloons became more refined. The bartender prided himself on his appearance and his drink pouring abilities. Early saloons and those in remote locations were often crude affairs with minimal furniture and few decorations. A single wood-burning stove might warm such establishments during the winter months.

A pair of "batwing" doors at the entrance was one of the more distinctive features of the typical saloon. The doors operated on double action hinges and extended from chest to knee level.

As travelers made their way West, some of them sold liquor from their wagons, and saloons were often formed of the materials at hand, including "sod houses. . . . a hull of an old sailing ship" or interiors "dug into the side of a hill".

As towns grew, many hotels included saloons, and some stand-alone saloons, such as the Barlow Trail Saloon in Damascus, Oregon, featured a railed porch.[2]


Gambling at the Orient Saloon in Bisbee, Arizona, c.1900. Photograph by C.S. Fly.

By way of entertainment, saloons offered dancing girls, some of whom occasionally or routinely doubled as prostitutes. Many saloons offered Faro, poker, brag, three-card monte, and dice games. Other games were added as saloons continued to prosper and face increasing competition. These additional games included billiards, darts, and bowling. Some saloons even included piano players, can-can girls, and theatrical skits. A current example of this type of entertainment is the Long Branch Variety Show that is presented in the recreated Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, Kansas.


When a town was first founded, the initial saloons were often nothing more than tents or shacks that served homemade whiskey that included such ingredients as "raw alcohol, burnt sugar and chewing tobacco".


To stretch their profits, saloon owners would cut good whiskey with turpentine, ammonia, gun powder or cayenne. Their custom product was called by names like "Tanglefoot, Forty-Rod, Tarantula Juice, Taos Lightning, Red Eye, and Coffin Varnish." Other offerings included Cactus Wine, made from a mix of tequila and peyote tea, and Mule Skinner, made with whiskey and blackberry liquor. A saloon might also be known as a "watering trough, bughouse, shebang, cantina, grogshop, and gin mill".[1]

As towns grew, saloons were often elaborately decorated, featured Bohemian stemware, and oil paintings were hung from the wall. The hard liquor was improved, often featuring whiskey imported from the eastern United States and Europe. To avoid rotgut, patrons would request "fancy" mixed drinks. Some of the top ten drinks in 1881 included claret sangarees and champagne flips.


Beer was served at room temperature since refrigeration was unavailable. Adolphus Busch introducing refrigeration and pasteurization of beer in 1880 with his Budweiser brand.[1] Some saloons kept the beer in kegs stored on racks inside the saloon.[3] A few saloons prided themselves on homemade beer and it was not always served at room temperature.

Notable saloons

The Northern, Wyatt Earp's saloon in Tonopah, Nevada, c.1902. Josie Earp may be the woman on the horse at left.

Among the more familiar saloons were First Chance Saloon in Miles City, Montana; the Bull's Head in Abilene, Kansas; the Arcade Saloon in Eldora, Colorado; the Holy Moses in Creede, Colorado; the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, Kansas; the Birdcage Theater in Tombstone, Arizona; the Bucket of Blood Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada; and the Jersey Lilly in Langtry, Texas. Many of these establishments remained open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.[1]

Bull's Head

Among the anecdotes of the American West, several notoable took place in or outside saloons. One such incident occurred at The Bull's Head in Abilene, Kansas. When the tavern's owner, Phil Coe, outraged the townspeople by painting a bull, complete with an erect penis, or pizzle, on the outside wall of his tavern, Wild Bill Hickok, the marshal at the time, threatened to burn the saloon to the ground if the offending animal was not painted over. Instead, he hired some men to do the job, which angered Coe. The two became enemies and in a later altercation, Wild Bill Hickok killed Coe.[4]

Wild Bill, also a professional lawman, gunfighter, and gambler, was later killed on August 2, 1876 by Jack McCall, who shot him in the back of the head, in Saloon No. 10, in Deadwood, South Dakota as Wild Bill was playing cards. His hand—aces and eights, according to tradition—has become known as the "dead man's hand".

Wyatt Earp's saloons

Former lawman, faro dealer, and gambler Wyatt Earp worked in or owned several saloons during his lifetime, outright or in partnership with others. He and two of his brothers arrived in Tombstone, Arizona on December 1, 1879 and during January 1881, Oriental Saloon owner Lou Rickabaugh gave Wyatt Earp a one-quarter interest in the faro concession at the Oriental Saloon in exchange for his services as a manager and enforcer.[5]: 41  Wyatt invited his friend, lawman and gambler Bat Masterson, to Tombstone to help him run the faro tables in the Oriental Saloon. In 1884, after leaving Tombstone, Wyatt and his wife Josie, Warren, James and Bessie Earp went to Eagle, Idaho, another boom town. Wyatt was looking for gold in the Murray-Eagle mining district. They opened a saloon called The White Elephant in a circus tent. An advertisement in a local newspaper suggested gentlemen "come and see the elephant".[6]

In 1885, Earp and Josie moved to San Diego where the railroad was about to arrive and a real estate boom was underway. They stayed for about four years. Earp speculated in San Diego's booming real estate market.[7] Between 1887 and around 1896 he bought three saloons and gambling halls, one on Fourth Street and the other two near Sixth and E, all in the "respectable" part of town.[7][8][9] They offered twenty-one games including faro, blackjack, poker, keno, and other Victorian games of chance like pedro and monte.[7] At the height of the boom, he made up to $1,000 a night in profit.[10] Wyatt particularly favored and may have run the Oyster Bar located in the Louis Bank of Commerce on Fifth Avenue.[5]: 71 

In the fall of 1897, Earp and Josie joined in the Alaska Gold Rush and headed for Nome, Alaska. He operated a canteen during the summer of 1899 and in September, Earp and partner Charles Ellsworth Hoxie built the Dexter Saloon in Nome, Alaska, the city's first two story wooden building and its largest and most luxurious saloon. The building was used for a variety of purposes because it was so large: 70 by 30 feet (21.3 m × 9.1 m) with 12 feet (3.7 m) ceilings.[11]

Wyatt and Josie returned to California in 1901 with an estimated $80,000. In February 1902, they arrived in Tonopah, Nevada, where gold had been discovered and a boom was under way. He opened the Northern Saloon in Tonopah, Nevada and served as a deputy U.S. Marshal under Marshal J.F. Emmitt.[12] His saloon, gambling and mining interests were profitable for a period.[13]


See also


  1. ^ a b c d "Saloons of the Old West". 2006-11-16. Retrieved 2009-10-05.
  2. ^ "Old West Saloons Vintage Photographs — Damascus, Oregon Saloon". 2006-11-16. Retrieved 2009-10-05.
  3. ^ "Old West Saloons Vintage Photographs — Orange County, California". 2006-11-16. Retrieved 2009-10-05.
  4. ^ "Home | Cowboys, Native American, American History, Wild West, American Indians". Archived from the original on September 28, 2007. Retrieved 2009-10-05.
  5. ^ a b Woog, Adam (February 28, 2010). Wyatt Earp. Chelsea House Publications. p. 110. ISBN 1-60413-597-2.
  6. ^ Reidhead, S. J. "Wyatt Earp, Senior Citizen". Retrieved 9 May 2011.
  7. ^ a b c Starr, Raymond G. "Wyatt Earp: The Missing Years, San Diego In The 1880s". San Diego History Center. Retrieved March 8, 2011.
  8. ^ "Shady Ladies in the "Stingaree District" When The Red Lights Went Out in San Diego". San Diego History Center. Retrieved March 8, 2011.
  9. ^ Peterson, Richard H. "The Story of New San Diego and of its Founder Alonzo E. Horton". San Diego History Center. Retrieved March 8, 2011.
  10. ^ "Wyatt Earp". San Diego: Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. 2005. Retrieved February 28, 2011.
  11. ^ Barra, Alan (December 1998). "Who Was Wyatt Earp?". 49 (8). American Heritage Magazine. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  12. ^ "Earp Historical Timeline San Francisco and Alaska". ((cite web)): |archive-date= / |archive-url= timestamp mismatch; February 19, 2008 suggested (help); |archive-url= requires |url= (help); Missing or empty |url= (help)
  13. ^ "Tombstone History - The Earps and "Doc" Holliday". Retrieved February 24, 2011.