Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Saloons: Fun time in the Old West

by | October 7, 2012 | 11 comments

It’s where trials, town meetings, and elections were often held. Where men could test each other’s mettle. And it held the promise of luck and good fortune even if the results were often the opposite. In the West, no enclave would call itself a town without boasting a saloon, and usually several of them. Some had finely crafted interiors, some were mere tents hastily put up, but all called themselves saloons if they wanted to attract the attention of the male population.


One’s local saloon could be counted on to serve various types and quality of alcohol, often the house’s own concoction of alcohol mixed with burnt sugar and chewing tobacco (see Legends of America) or cut with anything from turpentine to ammonia or even gun powder. Needless to say there was no ATF back in the day. Once the customers were liquored up, saloon keepers provided plenty of ways to throw away money in games of chance. Some even offered entertainment to keep their patrons playing or paying.


But despite the modern day reputation of a den of iniquity, saloons also served as a community gathering place for populations of fledgling towns, serving much the same purpose as the local VA hall might today. Drinking and gambling weren’t considered vices, yet. Indeed, for much of human history, alcohol has been viewed as a gift from God, even if abuse of alcohol was warned against. Interestingly, it was when a reliable workforce was needed to run machinery during the manufacturing age that alcohol usage was seen as a threat to industrialization and therefore something to be stopped. (History of Alcohol and Drinking Around the World by David J. Hanson)


As such, it was not unusual for saloons to be one of the first businesses established in an area looking to become a town. Saloons attracted people and people spent money which attracted more businesses and so it went. The first record of a saloon being established in America was Brown’s Saloon at Brown Hole, Wyoming in 1822. The popularity of the saloon spread in the wild west so that by 1880, 150 such establishments could be found in Leavenworth, Kansas alone.


In such a competitive market, a memorable name was one way a saloon could stand out, earn a reputation, and assure repeat business from those who traveled through again.


Perhaps one of the more unforgettable names for a saloon was The Bull’s Head in Abilene Kansas, owned by gunfighter and gambler Ben Thompson and his partner Phil Coe, most notably because  of the sign painted by Thompson and Coe depicting a certain erect appendage between the bull’s legs leaving no doubt as to what the name referred. Needless to say there was an uproar and it is alleged that Wild Bill Hickok, then Sheriff of Abilene, altered the sign himself. Hickok would later kill Phil Coe in a well-documented gunfight, unrelated, of course, to the Bull’s Head.

Gamblers and gunfighters seemed like obvious choices for saloon ownership seeing as they could get your money one way or another as well as keep the peace. Wyatt Earp owned or was a partner in several saloons in his day including The Oriental Saloon in Tombstone, Arizona, another bar called the White Elephant, perhaps named for the one in Fort Worth where Wyatt had spent a lot of time, which operated out of a tent, in the mining town of Eagle Idaho, the Dexter Saloon in Nome, Alaska and the Northern Saloon in Tonopah Nevada and three unnamed saloons in San Diego. Gives you an idea of how much Wyatt Earp traveled in his heyday and how much he liked to gamble and drink.

Gambling was a major draw for saloons and they offered many games of chance such as faro, three card monte, as well as poker. Saloon girls weren’t all prostitutes but many supplemented their ten dollar a week salary plus drink commission by taking a customer up the stairs. As a result, few “respectable” women entered a saloon least they be regarded as lowering themselves. Not to mention that other than drunken cowboys and games of chance, saloons had little to offer beyond conviviality, if that.

Some famous bars of the Old West included:

 Bucket of Blood, Virginia City Nevada (and still open), stomping grounds of Mark Twain

 Jersey Lilly in Langtry, Texas, named, of course for Lilly Langtry by Judge Roy Bean

First Chance Saloon in Miles City, Montana,

The Beehive in the Flats, Fort Griffen, Texas, where Lottie Deno played

Red Onion Saloon, Skagway, Alaska which also housed a famous brothel

White Elephant Saloon, Fort Worth Texas, once owned by famous gambler Luke Short

The Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, Kansas site of the Loving-Richardson gunfight and numerous others

Saloon #10, Deadwood, South Dakota where Wild Bill Hickok was killed

International Bowling Saloon, Golden, Co. which served as the meeting place for the Colorado Territorial House of Representatives in the 1860s

 Saloons weren’t just places to get drunk, although plenty did. They were often the center of town life in the remote parts of the west. Even today, adding saloon to a bar’s name will draw in people looking to spend a few fun hours. Anyone have a favorite saloon?

Anne Carrole writes about cowboys who have grit, integrity and little romance on their mind and the women who love them. You can check out her contemporary romance, Re-ride at the Rodeo, at The Wild Rose Press. Or find her at  www.facebook.com/annecarrole, www.facebook.com/lovewesternromances or www.annecarrole.com

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Photos: Wikipedia, public domain


  1. Ella Quinn

    Interesting post. I guess I never thought of saloons being meeting places. Thanks for the post.

    • Anne Carrole

      Thanks for stopping by Ella. I know it seems odd but there weren’t a whole lot of places to hold a large gathering, except, perhaps, churches and, not suprisingly given the population, Saloons were often built before the churches.:)

  2. Alan W. Jankowski

    Interesting that the first saloon wasn’t until 1822…I have to wonder how the country survived until then…
    I come from a family of saloon owners, on my father’s side…my great grandfather allegedly lost a substantial amount of money buying beat booze during prohibition…interesting post…

    • Anne Carrole

      Thanks for stopping by Alan and how neat your family owned saloons!:) Bet you’ve heard some interesting stories, especially from the prohibition era.

  3. Morgan

    I am amused names haven’t changed that much. The Army ase Fort Knox is in a dry county.When you cross over the county line there is a sign announcing the bar’s name: First Chance Bar. If you are coming from the other direction the sign reads: Last Chance Bar. I am betting it gets a lot of business no matter what the name.

    Interesting blog 🙂

    • Anne Carrole

      That is sooo funny, Morgan. Thanks for sharing! You gave me my laugh for the day. 🙂

  4. Gerri Bowen

    Interesting post, Anne. I’d never given drinking vs industrial revolution any thought before this.

    • Anne Carrole

      Neither did I until I started researching how alcohol was viewed through history and it was somewhat surprising to realize that for most of history it was truly seen as a gift from God, to be used temperately, of course. Helps explain a little bit better the bitter opposition to the temperance movement and how truly revolutionary Prohibition must have seemed to many.

  5. Suzi Love

    Great post.
    Suzi Love

    • Anne Carrole

      Thanks for stopping by Suzi. Glad you found it of interest.

  6. Paty Jager

    Saloons and Soiled Doves are my two favorite things about westerns. Great post, Anne!



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