Summit’s Historic Yesterdays: Early Gold Rush Saloons: Solace for Lonely Prospectors
Editor’s note: This tale comes from Mary Ellen Gilliland’s humorous local history, “Rascals, Scoundrels and No Goods.” The book captures the high-spirited antics of shysters and shady ladies, swindlers and rogues of 1800s Summit County mine camps.
Comforting names like Miners Home Saloon, Miners Rest and Angels Rest evoke images of snug havens, sanctuaries from dulling toil and hospitable retreats. The saloon indeed supplied these comforts to the all-male population of early 1860s Colorado placer mining camps. In what eyewitness Daniel Conner called “a motley assortment of strangers,” the mostly-young men far from families and sweethearts found solace in new friends and a genial barkeep.
The saloon also offered a locked safe to secure a pouch of gold dust, a place to vote in early-day elections and a hastily-assembled courtroom to dispense Miners Court justice. The saloon also provided a pulpit for gospel preachers like Methodist Snow Shoe Itinerant John Lewis Dyer. The Victorian mindset tolerated combining the sacred and the base, as long as the arrangement wore the right façade. A blanket tossed over the bar and a discreet cover for any nude paintings transformed the saloon into a respectable preaching house.
The miners observed the Sabbath rest religiously, leaving their labors behind — but not to attend church. Instead they resorted to the mine camp whiskey joint. Since Sunday supplied saloons their best income of the week, preaching there took place on Saturday or a weekday, a practical solution to satisfy both God and money. Frustrated ministers who viewed music as sinful often had to wait for fiddlers or a theatrical troupe to finish, then preach to a bleary-eyed but properly solemn, hat-in-hand, congregation.
The original saloon function, hosting public meetings, church and mine district justice, didn’t last beyond the 1860s and ’70s. Then the miners’ sanctuary saw its hospitality invaded by a disorderly sporting element, a bunch of revelers with everything from mischief to villainy on their minds.
Enter the Rowdies of the 1880s
Many who scrambled over the Divide to the gold fields and silver camps were escapees from Eastern society. Father Rhabanus Gutmann, the portly pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in 1880s Breckenridge, was disgusted at uncivilized Summit County. Not only did he regard his rectory “cold as a dog kennel” but he frowned upon the camp’s sporting element. He complained, “It seems as if all the roustabouts, rascals, loose women, adulterers etc find their way to Breckenridge.”
William Byers, who founded the Rocky Mountain News, traveled through the Blue River valley in 1861 and remarked that “Loafing and gambling are assiduously patronized.” He observed “a half dozen sporting saloons are regularly open, day and night.”
True, idlers, loafers, bums and wastrels formed a high percentage of the mine camp population. These men lounged in saloons, wasting their days. At night they enjoyed the convenience of the saloon as a flop house. A bar boy at closing time chalk-marked the rough plank floor into rectangles, each barely large enough to accommodate a boozehound’s body. Fifty cents bought a place to sleep and a rolled-up coat provided a pillow. (If a pickled patron hit the floor before bedtime due to passing out, he was said to “bite the dust,” that is bite the filthy sawdust of the barroom floor, which was probably an unspeakable place for sweet repose.)
Upon awakening the sleeper found the convenience of an eye-opener close at hand. A wag once suggested, “The only real cure for a hangover is death.” A less cynical sage remarked, “I feel sorry for people who don’t drink. When they get up in the morning, that is as good as they are going to feel.”
White Lightnin’ and Purple Jesus
How bad the intemperate felt the morning after resulted from the toxic ingredients of mine camp whiskey as well as its alcoholic content. To stretch the contents of the whiskey barrel bartenders added tobacco, red pepper, lye and other dangerous chemicals. Others put a less malevolent mix of water and burnt sugar to create “brandy.” Taos white lightnin’ got its name from the near-lethal electrifying reaction it caused in consumers.
Abstainer Horace Greeley, Greeley, Colorado founder, commented, “I have not tasted it but the smell I cannot escape and I am sure a more wholesome potable might be compounded of spirits of turpentine, aqua fortis and steeped tobacco. Its look alone will condemn it — soapy, ropy, turbid, it is within bounds to say that every part of it contains as much poison as a gallon of pure whiskey.”
Not all whiskey parlors served rotgut and turned into flop houses in the wee hours. Some saloons doubled as real inns for the hundreds of travelers arriving daily in the frenzied mine camps. A saloon downstairs with a sleeping room upstairs challenged the tipsy only with negotiating a steep stairway.
One wayfarer left a Kremmling alehouse early and climbed the stairs to get a good bunk. Those carousing in the saloon could not fail to hear a volley of gunfire some time later. Racing up the stairs expecting to see dead bodies they encountered instead a sheepish guest surrounded by walls and ceiling riddled with bullet holes. He looked at his smoking gun. “Bed bugs,” he explained. “I was shooting the bed bugs.”
Mary Ellen Gilliland’s “SUMMIT, A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado,” has captured the colorful gold rush. She details the misbehavior of history’s miscreants in her “Rascals, Scoundrels and No Goods” and recounts the story of the region’s first town in Breckenridge. Gilliland is also the author of the popular guide,”The Summit Hiker.” All are available from The Next Page Bookstore or online at alpenrosepress.com.
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