Old bars of Nevada have tales to tell
On a sunny March afternoon, Cliff McCain grips his pint of beer and takes a swig. The golden hue of the lager provides some color in the smoky haze of the Old Washoe Club. Outside, on Virginia City’s main street, tourists snap photographs, lick ice-cream cones and watch their kids jump on the wooden sidewalks. Back inside the Old Washoe Club, the mood is more serious.
McCain sets his beer on the caramel-colored bar, the same one writer Mark Twain and Civil War heroes Ulysses S. Grant and Philip Sheridan slammed their glasses onto after knocking back shots of whiskey. He kicks his leg onto one of the bar stools, sucks the end of his cigarette, then blows smoke into the musty air.
As he rubs the gray stubble on his face, he stares into a mirror attached to the wall behind the bar. Rows of liquor bottles run the length of the wall underneath the mirror, which was shipped from Europe in the 1860s.
“It was a death sentence if you broke that mirror,” said McCain, who bought the Old Washoe Club in 1974. “It had to be shipped from Europe to San Francisco, then brought over the mountains. No matter how much people drank and no matter how much things got out of hand, the mirror never got touched.”
The mirror isn’t the only item with a story to tell.
The bar’s sagging wood floors were cut from Lake Tahoe forests in the mid-1800s. Chandeliers from the same era hang from the ceiling, but the oil baskets have been replaced with electric-powered bulbs. Above the bar is a vintage crystal wedding basket, and it, too, survived the unruliness of the bar’s patrons, even though a few inches to the left, bullet holes mar the ceiling’s copper tiling.
In the back of the building, through a glass door, is the room where McCain keeps the booze. The low temperature of the room hasn’t changed much from the town’s mining heyday, when it was used as a morgue.
In the winter, it was impossible to transport dead bodies, so they were stacked in this room. When the roads out of town were in really bad shape, the pile of bodies reached as high as “B” Street, almost a full story above where McCain stores his beer.
Between the old morgue and the bar is another room with brick walls and a pool table. The room’s entrance has a spiral staircase that leads to the original location of The Millionaires Club, a prestigious 19th-century society that had three dozen members, including Grant, Sheridan and Twain, an honorary member because no writer’s assets in the late 1800s totaled $1 million.
(The original caramel-colored bar from The Millionaires Club on the second floor was moved to the floor of the Old Washoe Club.)
The Millionaires Club and the staircase leading to it are prohibited to tourists, but they still can rub the stairs’ faded wooden planks and the scuff marks from boots that maybe Twain wore. However, it’s the room with brick walls and a pool table that’s landed the Old Washoe Club on the History Channel.
When the fire of 1875 roared through town, all the saloons except the Old Washoe Club burned to the ground. Many bars quickly rebuilt, including the Delta and Bucket of Blood saloons, but the Old Washoe Club never had to rebuild because the fire only entered the building – it didn’t consume it.
Evidence of the fire’s path remains on the wall behind the pool table where the blackened bricks from the fire are in plain view. Since the fire spared the Old Washoe Club, it’s been given the title of “Oldest Saloon in Virginia City,” which certainly means something in a town that had scores of drinking establishments in the late 1800s.
However, does that title answer this question: Is it the oldest bar in Nevada?
“There used to be a lot of fights between people in Dayton and Genoa, arguing over which town is the oldest in Nevada … who gives a s—?” McCain said. “We stopped the brawling a long time ago, but it still means a lot to some people. I don’t argue anymore.”
Genoa and Dayton have battled for decades about which town is Nevada’s oldest. Both have legitimate arguments depending on how “permanent settlement” is defined, but there really isn’t much suspense when it comes to the oldest saloon in Nevada.
The Genoa Bar, established in 1853, is the clear winner. And like the Old Washoe Club, which opened its doors in 1862, its walls also talk.
Housed in a brick building with a tin roof, The Genoa Bar has watched countless celebrities walk through its white double doors. John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Ron Howard all have sipped drinks at the bar. Raquel Welch, a Playboy model and Hollywood actress who captivated men in the 1960s and ’70s, also was a big hit when she visited Genoa.
Welch autographed one of her famous black-and-white pictures that show her in just a bra and underwear. And before she left, she unstrapped the bra she was wearing and donated it to the bar.
The autographed picture of her is nailed to the wall, and right next to it is a black, dusty bra dangling from an antler, which bar manager Cece Rosky confirmed was Welch’s.
Celebrities certainly add to the bar’s nostalgia, but they aren’t its most frequent customers.
“We have our tourists, bikers, golfers and, of course, our locals,” Rosky said. “The locals are great. They are like family.”
Virginia City’s Delta Saloon, which was the first saloon to rebuild after the 1875 fire, has a similar philosophy.
The Old Washoe Club might be Virginia City’s oldest saloon, but it has had to close its doors at various times. That means the Delta Saloon is the town’s longest continually operating bar and, as a result, tour buses flock there.
In the summers, tourists arrive daily. They usually order a Bloody Mary, a signature drink in Nevada, pull a few slots and leave. But in the winter, the buses don’t come nearly as often, though the bills still must be paid.
“There are local prices, and there are prices for everyone else,” said bar manager Kathy Walker, 67, who has worked at the Delta Saloon for almost a decade. “It has to be that way, because we’re not busy the whole year.”
McCain agrees. He said the old bars of Nevada make for good photographs and history lessons for tourists, but they remain legitimate businesses that must turn a profit.
“If we don’t have locals in here, we’ll die,” McCain said. “A lot has changed in Virginia City, but that hasn’t.”
There might not be any bullet holes or chandeliers from the 1800s like there are in Nevada’s oldest bars, but there are plenty of old drinking establishments in Lake Tahoe, though the exact dates of their origin remain sketchy.
On the South Shore, Rojo’s started out as Globin’s at Tahoe – a gas station, grocery store, bar and restaurant. The building was constructed in the 1920s, likely making it the oldest bar in the area.
Zephyr Cove Resort has been a vacation destination since the early 1900s, though it’s unclear when there was separate bar. Pictures on the wall date back to the 1960s, but it is widely believed there was a bar somewhere on the property long before that.
In South Lake Tahoe, the Christiana Inn opened in the mid-1960s, and although it has been closed in the past, it’s likely the city’s oldest bar, still at its current location. Nephele’s on Ski Run Boulevard opened in 1977.
On the North Shore, the Cal Neva opened in 1937. While it remains unclear if there was a bar in the 1930s, there certainly were drinking areas by the 1940s when it attracted some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. In Tahoe City, Peter n Peter’s has been operating since 1976, but it appears that the River Ranch Lodge is North Shore’s oldest bar on the California side.
The lodge, located on the banks of the Truckee River, originally was the Deer Park Inn. Built in 1888, the resort was popular until the 1930s, when the building was abandoned and began to deteriorate.
By the 1950s, the original structure was cleared, and the River Ranch Lodge was built on the site but was used mostly as a tennis camp. When the Olympics came to Squaw Valley in 1960, it was the headquarters to foreign diplomats and likely served drinks. The current owners have kept the lodge open since 1973.
Editor’s note: This is by no means a conclusive list. If there is a bar we’re missing, e-mail us and let us know.