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Western saloons often 1st business erected in towns

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew
According to the book "Saloons of Denver" by Scott Dial, published in 1973 by Old Army Press, the word "saloon" was not used in America until 1841, the year wagon trains began leaving for California. It is believed the first "Western saloon" probably came about when a wagon hauling whiskey across the prairie, accidentally met a thirsty Army patrol.
Sensing profit, the driver rolled two wooden barrels off his wagon and began dipping out tin cups of whiskey to sell to the soldiers. After that, crude signs began appearing on wagons hauling whiskey bearing the word "saloon," as it was a short and easily spelled word. This practice followed as buildings were constructed to sell alcoholic products.

The absence of civilization, town amenities and especially women left the frontiersmen, soldiers, mountain men and hunters with little to do except drink and gamble. These gathering places provided a melting pot for many cultures thus creating an important part of the legendary Western myth.
The Flat Tx Saloon
The Saloon in the frontier town of Fort Griffin, Texas
Photos courtesy Barclay Gibson

In fact, according to history, the first business house in new Denver was a saloon, built on the corner of Third and Ferry streets, late in 1858 by owners Rice and Hiffner. It was approximately 8 feet square, made of logs, mud-chinked walls, sod roof and sod floor and contained no windows. Within the first year, a dozen other saloons also opened.

Uncle Dick Wooten, famous for his tollgate on Raton Pass in later years, arrived in Denver with his wife on Christmas morning 1858. His wagons contained a large tent, trade goods, weapons and 10 barrels of "Taos Lightning," an ill-tasting but potent home-brewed whiskey made of wheat.

By the time his tent was up and his goods stored inside, about 200 locals had gathered. He passed out tin cups, knocked the top out of a whiskey barrel and shouted, "Merry Christmas! The drinks are on the house!" His generosity created the first mass hangover in the city. Already famous as a scout and Indian fighter, he built a saloon 30 feet long and 20 feet wide. It was the most imposing building in Denver at the time.

Of interest, most saloons of the era built their bars along the left side of the room, believing for some reason, that a man in an unfamiliar setting, lost or inebriated, will always bear to his left. The construction took advantage of this natural instinct guiding him quickly to another drink.

Although glass bottles were used at the bars to provide some class, only corks were available for capping. Metal caps with crimped edges were not invented until 1892. Almost all liquor was shipped in wooden barrels then drawn off into bottles after arriving in the saloon storage rooms.

Colorado voted itself dry four years before Prohibition arrived in 1918. The word "saloon" in now illegal for use in Colorado and would require an amendment to the State Constitution to make it legal.


Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew"
January 25, 2011 column
Delbert Trew is a freelance writer and retired rancher. He can be reached at 806-779-3164, by mail at Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002, or by e-mail at trewblue@centramedia.net. For books see DelbertTrew.com. His column appears weekly.

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This page last modified: January 25, 2011