Last call: Learn about America’s Old West saloons
Special to the Tribune
Their labels were telling. Drinking Red Dynamite would “blow your head off.” Block and Tackle made a man “walk a block and tackle anything.” Forty Rods dropped the drinker at exactly that distance from the bar. The debilitating effects of Taos Lightning struck a man on the spot. There were so many alcoholic concoctions in the saloons of the 19th century frontier West that each customer could choose his own poison.
America’s love of alcohol got its start in the very beginning, and not surprisingly, trouble began right away. The 17th century Virginian missionary Captain John Thorpe distributed barrels of distilled “godly liquor” to the Native Americans to help persuade them to accept the “true faith” of Christianity. He was killed for his efforts because, as one writer put it, “The Natives either got too much of his whiskey or his religion, or got the two confused.”
The American legacy of imbibing really blossomed 200 years later in the saloons of the Wild West. In 1860, there were 42 saloons in Virginia City, Nevada, which was a ratio of about one drinking establishment for every 52 men. The popularity of saloons was related to the fact that there were very few women to distract and moderate men’s behavior.
Considering the primitive conditions in early frontier towns, the selection of spirits was impressive. Saloons offered domestically brewed beer from St. Louis and Milwaukee, as well as porter, stout, and ale imported from England. California’s legendary wine industry began in the 18th century when Franciscan monks planted vines at their chain of coastal missions to produce sacramental wine. There were also about 20 different brands of bourbon and rye whiskey available at Truckee and Nevada drinking establishments.
ALCOHOL AS A CURE FOR DISEASE
For those settlers, miners and prospectors living on the east slope of the Sierra Nevada, the local drink of choice was “Tarantula Juice.” This home-brewed beverage imparted a nasty “bite” due to the strychnine added to it. Strychnine is a poison, but in the early 19th century French scientists had promoted a diluted strychnine/prussic acid mixture as a cure for pulmonary disorders. In lethal doses, strychnine kills quickly.
In Carson Valley, traders purchased a strychnine solution in Placerville, California and then added it to what they called “gin.” Carson Valley gin was wood grain alcohol made from turpentine, oil of vitriol, rosin and essence of laurel. Sometime around 1852, local Nevada fiddle player “Dutch Nick” Ambrose added prussic acid as well as tobacco oil to his concoction and called it Tarantula Juice.
Strychnine is an alkaloid and probably produced an effect similar to the drug methamphetamine. The erratic bursts of nervous energy coupled with heavy alcohol consumption often resulted in violence. The moniker “Tarantula” alluded to more than the drink’s bite.
Historian C.W. Bayer wrote, “As the pleasurable effects of the strychnine whiskey wore off, muscle spasms set in and the celebrant’s skin would crawl as if covered by dozens of baby tarantulas. The name seems to have derived because men ordered two tumblers. The second tumbler remained for early morning — so as to combat the muscle spasms, the lockjaw. Left upon the table until midnight, a spare tumbler of the ‘juice’ killed off the baby tarantulas — that feeling of small hairy arms creeping upon the flesh as limbs began to stiffen.”
Mark Twain mentions miners afflicted with these “spiders” in his book “Roughing It.”
THE RIGHT OR WRONG REMEDY?
Despite the inherent risk from drinking strychnine whiskey, the harsh liquor served an important purpose for emigrants and prospectors. It was considered a cure for the region’s bad water, which frequently led to abdominal discomfort and diarrhea. The combination of alkali water and diarrhea generated plagues of cholera.
One epidemic that swept through the Carson River region during 1851 forced California-bound emigrants to veer north onto the Truckee route. Everyone thought that drinking beer or whiskey laced with strychnine mitigated the effects of the contaminated water, and therefore could protect against contracting cholera. Legendary Nevada journalist Alf Doten took strychnine pills in 1857 — in conjunction with an “Electric chemical bath” juiced by batteries. Doten endured these odd remedies to cure a boil on his hip.
Pharmacists prescribed nearly as much alcohol as bartenders poured. Alcohol-based cure-alls and remedies were common. Hostetter’s Bitters was advertised as a “liver-regulator and cure for dyspepsia, torpidness and influenza.” It packed enough of a wallop that it became a favorite with clergymen who would not patronize a bar, but could visit their pharmacist instead.
Another favorite elixir was Dr. B.J. Kendall’s blackberry balsam, a suggested remedy for diarrhea, dysentery, cholera and liver ailments. It was a mixture of nearly pure alcohol with five grains of opium per liquid ounce. The recommended dosage was three tablespoons for an adult, one tablespoon for children 8 to 10 years old and slightly lesser amounts for younger children.
As they say, “If the disease doesn’t kill you, the medicine will.”
MORE MEN, MORE SALOONS
Sometimes, the cure was worse than the affliction. Ragtown, situated on the Carson River, represented life-giving water to the fortunate emigrants who had survived crossing the Forty Mile Desert. At Ragtown, whiskey was often used to protect against teeming organisms found in tainted desert water.
In 1858 a traveler wrote: “Ragtown is said at one time to have contained 30 whiskey shops, and was broken up by famine and disease in 1854. There is a large cluster of graves near by, which are said to have been dug chiefly by bad whiskey.”
During the early 1860s in Virginia City, Mark Twain and Artemus Ward, both humorists, writers and lecturers, were joined by two other comrades in a serious drinking binge. By the time Ward proposed a standing toast, nobody in the party could stand. At one saloon the bill for the four men totaled $237, at a time when a good dinner cost $3 and drinks sold for 50 cents each.
Ward, whose real name was Charles Farrar Browne, was immensely popular for his deadpan delivery and his appearance could pack a theater with paying customers. The owner of San Francisco’s Maguire’s Opera House asked the highly paid comedian what he would charge to entertain for 100 nights? Ward promptly replied, “Brandy and soda.”
As the male population boomed, so did the number of saloons ready to slake their thirst. By the time the transcontinental railroad came through Truckee in 1868, there were 35 residences and 28 saloons and dance halls.
The saloon was all things to all men. Besides being a drinking establishment, it was often an eatery, hotel, bath and comfort station, livery stable, gambling den, dance hall, bordello, barbershop, courtroom, political arena, dueling ground and undertaker’s parlor. The saloon was as American as apple pie.
THE ‘APEX OF MASCULINE SOCIETY’
Benjamin Franklin tipped the bottle frequently; John Hancock was a rumrunner while George Washington drank hot toddies in countless taprooms and ran up enormous liquor bills. Thomas Jefferson promoted home brewing of native malt. Daniel Webster was “as majestic in his consumption of liquor as in everything else.” Taverns and saloons are an American tradition.
Saloons in the West drew men like a magnet. For some of the early prospectors and pioneers, whiskey came before food, women — even gold. The saloon was often the first building up in a new community and the last to close before it became a ghost town. The saloon was the best place for socializing and conducting business, and the barkeep was one of the most respected citizens in town.
Mark Twain wrote, “The cheapest and easiest way to become an influential man and be looked up to by the community at large was to stand behind a bar, wear a cluster-diamond pin, and sell whiskey.” After his days in Virginia City, Twain added, “I am not sure, but that the saloon keeper held a shade higher rank than any other member of society. His opinion had weight. It was his privilege to say how elections should be run. No great movement could succeed without the countenance and direction of the saloon keeper.”
In 1860, the total population of Virginia City was 2,390, only 118 of whom were women. Without the restraining influence of “respectable women,” miners often drank until they passed out. In many saloons, itinerant wayfarers who spent money on drink were allowed to sleep on the sawdust floor.
Morning call would often find many customers still asleep on the chairs, tables and windowsills. For the male population, the saloon was a refuge from dreariness and toil, a place of human companionship — the “apex of masculine society and the epitome of its culture.”
Ironically, it was not Prohibition that ended saloons as a male sanctuary. Their decline began when women demanded the right to step up to the bar and drink there too. The loss of this last bastion of male camaraderie finally destroyed the myth and doomed a once-vital (if deadly) piece of American folklore.
This story first appeared in 2015-16 winter edition of Tahoe Magazine, a product of the Sierra Sun, North Lake Tahoe Bonanza, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe Action. The magazine is available now on newsstands throughout the greater Reno-Truckee-Tahoe region.