San Francisco's EL Dorado was the apotheosis of the miningtown
gambling joints. It opened in '49 as a tent fifteen by twentyfive feet, its
named painted on one side. The ground on which it stood was rented at
$40,000 a year as the mining boom created a real estate boom. By the
process of replacement it was transmuted into a four-story brick building
with an iron balcony running the length of its facade and a resplendent
"EL DORADO" in gold letters beckoning to all. Professional gamblers,
along with the women employees, lived more luxuriously on its upper
floors than anybody else in town, and downstairs a band "of the best
musicians the country could furnish" entranced homeless wanderers with its
rendition of "Home, sweet, sweet home."
Operating in the posh league were Denison's Exchange, the Veranda,
the Aguila de Oro, the St. Charles and the Bella Union. Trying to outdo
each other in entertainment, the Aguila de Oro presented Negro singers;
the Veranda offered a one-man band, a musician who played a set of reed
pipes attached to his chin, and a drum behind him that he beat with his
elbows while he clashed symbols with his hands; the El Dorado featured
a hefty female violinist who bowed vigorously as she stood in a gallery
suspended from the ceiling.
In Tombstone's clapboard buildings housemen dealt cards in three
eight-hour shifts to appease the desert rats and adventurers who jammed
that town in '79. Inside all was gilt and glitter, as Clara S. Brown,
newspaper correspondent, wrote of the Oriental in 1880: " simply gorgeous.
The mahogany bar is a marvel of beauty, the gaming room is carpeted
with Brussels, brilliantly lighted and furnished with reading matter and
writing materials for its patrons."
Gold hunters who sought relaxation and supplies or holed up for the
winter in Sacramento found professional gamblers and highly paid
entertainers waiting to amuse them. Sacramento's attractions were not far
behind San Francisco's, and one observer remembers a family of four
musicians and singers who were paid $100 a day in addition to lodging, meals,
liquor, and laundry.
Anything free was a come-on. In the gambling palaces liquor and
cigars were often on the house, for astute proprietors knew that they would
get their own back more easily from befuddled, smoke saturated clients.
The portals never closed. Since the dens stood side by side, night was
a cacophonous nightmare of different bands playing different tunes at
the same time. Sentiment was the rage. Negro singers wailed "Susanna"
and begged to be carried back to Ole Virginny from dusk to dawn.
To the "variety halls," however crude, of the mining communities
came professional entertainers, attracted by the prospect of having
nuggets of gold thrown on the stage as reward for any performance that
pleased. Edwin Booth and Frank Mayo did not disdain to tread the boards to
win plaudits, and riches, of pioneer miners.
In addition to the stage, galleries ran along side walls, some
shielded from the public eye by curtains so prospectors could enjoy drinks
with commission girls in comparative privacy. The Bella Union in
Deadwood had seventeen curtained boxes facing the stage. The first piano ever
carried into the Black Hills was for the Bella Union, and the house
opened with a grand and fancy parade. As much blood was spilled on its
sawdust-covered floor in unrehearsed human tragedies as flowed in the
melodramas that played on its stage. The Melodeon Saloon, which preceded
Bella Union, was famous for the first minstrel show in the Black Hills,
and for the talents of Lobster Jack, who accompanied his songs on the
But time rang down the curtains of variety halls over and over again
when mining towns lasted long enough to develop opera houses and an
actor-manager and a local troupe or traveling stock company presented
plays far less bawdy than the shows of frontier days.
Conversely the gambling houses were not above culture. Occasionally
they served as lecture halls and pulpits for itinerant preachers.
During the '90s Watrous and Bannigan's saloon, one of the leading houses of
chance in the chaotic mining camp at Creede, Colorado, considered
business slow if it cleared only $300 an hour. One Sunday night, with the
tables going strong; a clergyman asked Watrous if he might use the place
for public worship. Watrous climbed on a chair, shouted for silence,
and announced, "This gentleman wants to make a few remarks to you of a
religious nature." All games, except the roulette wheel at the end of the
room, ceased while the preacher mounted the platform of the keno
layout. Men took seats at tables and lined up against the walls and listened
respectfully, though the preacher had to raise his voice at times to be
heard over the houseman's cries of "Twenty-two and red! Keep the ball
rolling, gents, keep it rolling. Nineteen and black." When the preacher
had done, his congregation took up a large collection before resuming
Like other gambling houses in other parts of the country, the
gaming houses of the frontiersmen were democratic. Only the
tight-lipped, genteel-appearing professional gambler held himself aloof. No man
was judged by his dress and no lines of social standing or wealth drawn.
Whether a man bought three drinks or thirty, the house customarily
stood one round in three.
The gambling establishments soon employed female hostesses. The
French Government, eager fo empty Paris of a host of hardened harpies,
offered bars of gold in a special lottery, the profits of which were to go
toward passage money for three hundred Parisian daughters of joy. These
expatriates soon entrenched themselves in San Francisco, where they
bartered their baggage for gold and proved more attractive to men than the
Mexican or Peruvian crib girls who operated from mean little shacks
around the sprawling city.
The miners came in '49 The whores in '51
They jungled up together And made the Native Son.
In 1850 the proprietor of the Bella Union shrewdly hired one of the
Frenchwomen to act as croupier at a roulette table and she became a
great drawing card. Miners just in from their diggings and hungry for the
sight of a woman, merchants and adventurers drawn to San Francisco by
the bugle call of gold, professional gamblers from rival establishments
came to bet their bundles of dust at the table presided over by the
French femme. Soon every big gambling house in town had at least one woman
croupier or dealer of a short-card game.
The gambling house was more than a club for gold hunters; it was the
nearest approach to home, with its reading rooms and stationery. Signs
like the one in a Helena, Montana, saloon were often posted: "DON'T
FORGET TO WRITE TO DEAR OLD MOTHER SHE IS THINKING OF YOU. WE FURNISH
PAPER AND ENVELOPES FREE, AND HAVE THE BEST WHISKY IN TOWN."