Fade in… A Clint Eastwood-type character bursts through the entrance of an imposing saloon. With six-shooters on his hips and menace in his grin, we know things are about to get wild. Sure, we’ve all seen the movies, but did American frontier barrelhouses actually have two-way doors? And what did cowboys really get up to after a long day in the fields? Well, saddle up, partner, because these 40 photographs are about to reveal the rootin’-tootin’ reality of the Old West’s many watering holes.
40. Orient Saloon – Bisbee, Arizona (1903)
The dapper suits. The sea of fine hats. The gambling table transfixing almost every eye in the room. If those clues are anything to go by, it seems there could be some real money at play here. And with precious metals in abundance at the time, there was plenty of cash to be had in boomtown Bisbee. Who’s for another game, then?
39. Table Bluff Hotel and Saloon – Table Bluff, California (1889)
Out in the frontier, men had to graft every which way they could to get by. And Seth Kinman, the man responsible for these magnificently assembled – yet somewhat freaky – chairs, did just that. The hunter-come-craftsman took his work all the way to the top, in fact, even presenting one such perch – made of wapiti antlers – to President Lincoln.
38. Wyatt Earp’s Northern Saloon – Tonopah, Nevada (1903)
A fabled jack-of-all-trades, Wyatt Earp was known far and wide across the American West – and not primarily for his barrelhouses. The frontiersman, you see, also grafted as a hustler and a fugitive before becoming – no kidding – an officer of the law. But perhaps the most legendary chapter of the man’s life was his role in the shootout at the O.K. Corral, a brief but bloody clash in which several men lost their lives.
37. Matt H. Kerais’ Tavern – Kenosha, Wisconsin (1890s-1900s)
It’s a tale as old as time – or at least as old as drinking dens. A small, local joint, the same faces in there every night. The barman knows each drinker’s tipple of choice. But then the familiar routine is interrupted as an outsider walks in. And how is this bold interloper greeted? By a scene not too dissimilar to the one pictured here, perhaps, the room a chorus of steely glares, suspicion and stale spilled liquor.
36. The Arcade Saloon – Eldora, Colorado (1898)
With a new mineshaft recently sunk nearby, Eldora, Colorado, started to grind into gear in the last decade of the 19th century. And with more and more workers rolling through, all the crucial amenities they required – including drinking dens – soon followed. By early 1898, in fact, one paper reported that the settlement “already [had] six flourishing saloons, with the prospects of a dozen more within a few days,” according to website Western Mining History.
35. Unknown Saloon – Unknown State (1890)
At the start of the 19th century, cowboys were still fairly few and far between across the American West. But as the citizens of the nation’s industrialized north hankered more and more for steaks, burgers and all things cow, business boomed. And by the 1870s, the U.S. – from its northern border right down to the Deep South – was littered with cattle and their keepers.
34. Unknown Saloon – Unknown State (1915)
Though this shot was taken in 1915, towards the tail end of the Old West era, it’s still every bit the quintessential scene. Yes, from the various games tables sat cheek by jowl to the dubious gents donning wide-brimmed hats, this composition reeks of frontier life. Some eagle-eyed viewers may even be able to make out the Buffalo Bill ad pinned to the rear wall – a flyer for the showman’s latest Wild West-themed production.
33. Unknown Saloon – Ehrenburg, Arizona Territory (c.1911)
Automobiles were presumably still quite a foreign sight to most Arizonans in the early 1910s. Perhaps, then, these rural kids didn’t yet trust the horseless carriage and its technology; that might even explain their positioning a fair way off from the vehicle. On the other hand, maybe a knowing parent had warned them from putting their grubby mitts all over the gleaming – and presumably very pricey – motorcar.
32. Unknown Saloon – Unknown State (1890s)
Not only is the name of this watering hole unknown, but so are the town and state in which it stood. And with Old West saloons famed for their widespread uniformity, this could well be anywhere from Arizona to Alaska. Barrelhouses, after all, didn’t need flash and fanfare to survive; they just had to offer refuge and refreshment and the money would start rolling in.
31. Unknown Saloon – Seattle, Washington (c.1918)
As one wily Wikimedia Commons contributor has pointed out, the Evergreen State banned the consumption of alcohol in the mid-1910s. But this photo is dated towards the end of that decade, which would make it a Prohibition-Era shot. Perhaps this Seattle saloon was really a speakeasy, then. Or maybe there was no alcohol on the premises and the bottles were just for show. Or, to embrace a simpler – though admittedly less fun – explanation, it could be that this image has been incorrectly dated.
30. Military Plaza Saloon – San Antonio, Texas (1876)
Just one year after this photograph was taken, San Antonio joined America’s ever-widening web of railways. And as the great iron horse charged deeper into Texas, it carried with it settlers from both distant and neighboring corners of the union. Today, a century-and-a-half later, the city remains a melting pot of cultures from all over North and Central America.
29. Unknown Saloon – Everett, Washington (1907)
This Washington State saloon seems to boast all the necessary ingredients for a fruitful night of R&R. Four spittoons line the floor, ready to catch any tobacco-laced spittle that might be shot at them. A bar rail sustains that prized bar-side stance: leg cocked, glass raised. And the ratio of barmen to patrons seems set to surely guarantee speedy service – providing the purveyors themselves don’t drink the place dry!
28. Billy The Mugs Saloon – Seattle, Washington (c.1895)
Newcomers started filtering into America’s Pacific Northwest in the mid-19th century. There, they struck up a remarkably amicable relationship with the region’s existing Native American peoples. Yes, outsiders got along so handsomely with one of the area’s chiefs that they even adopted his title for their settlement. And what, you ask, was that indigenous commander’s name? Seattle, of course.
27. Long Branch Saloon – Dodge City, Kansas (1870-1885)
Is there any town as fabled for mischief and misbehavior as Kansas’ Dodge City? Though the settlement’s legends of lawlessness were built in part thanks to sensationalized press reports, it did also see its fair share of foul play. For roughly 12 months in the early 1870s, in fact, the community had no real legal infrastructure – and saw almost 20 verified murders in that short period. A good time to “get outta Dodge,” it seems…
26. Unknown Saloon – Arizona (1895)
From the first decades of the 19th century right up to the 1910s, the card game faro was hosted in every Old West gambling house worth its salt. Imported from France, the flutter became a fan favorite of the American frontier thanks to its speed, simplicity and generous odds. The chances of punters winning big were so great, in fact, that American casinos soon struck the punt from their rosters.
25. Gunn House Saloon – Sonora, California (1898)
At first glance this Golden State saloon seems the picture of Old West simplicity, with card games and community spirit ruling supreme. But a closer look reveals the scene’s cutting-edge facilities: electric lights dangle from the ceiling, and that structure on the right-hand wall may well be a telephone. The close of the 19th century, it seems, signalled the arrival of a new modernity to Sonora.
24. Perley McBride’s Shop – Unknown State (1906)
The 1944 dictionary Western Words defines “loafing” as, “Keepin’ ‘bout as busy as a hibernatin’ bear.” Of course, this colorful farmer’s phrase is far from complimentary. The signage adorning this saloon, then, must have sent a clear message to its readers: idleness and vagrancy has no place in this fine establishment.
23. Unknown Saloon – Unknown State (Unknown Date)
The archetypal cowboy get-up takes center stage here with five cattlemen sporting waistcoats, neckties and fringed leather chaps. And with gloves peeking out of pockets and hats still firmly donned, it seems as though these gents have just walked straight in off the fields. In fact, it appears that these rough-and-ready herdsmen were so eager for their tipples that they couldn’t even wait for the camera to complete its exposure – hence the blurred beverages.
22. Shamrock Saloon – Hazen, Nevada (1905)
As intrepid explorers established new outposts across the American frontier, they often christened a new site by erecting a saloon. And as the largest – or even the only – permanent structure in a new town, the drinking den would offer far more than refreshments. Yes, barrelhouses also served as muster stations for more official local duties, doubling up as legal forums, administrative centers and even places of worship.
21. The Klondyke Dance Hall and Saloon – Seattle, Washington (1909)
With machismo in abundance, the saloons of Old West America were frequently more of a boys’ club than a family affair. In fact, local ladies were typically barred from entering most watering holes. Certain establishments, though, such as those that hosted dances, would welcome girls of the community to sip and shimmy their evenings away.
20. Unknown Saloon – Unknown State (1927)
Though this image was undoubtedly staged, the feral violence of the Wild West that it depicts was sadly far from fiction. And saloons – where various armed, unruly men rubbed shoulders – often saw a lot of the trouble. Yes, on countless occasions Old West drinking houses erupted into anarchy, with the evening’s chit-chat giving way to quarrels, scuffles and shootings.
19. Circle City Saloon – Nome, Alaska (1902)
As of 1898 citizens of Nome, Alaska, shared their town with barely a few other souls. But just one year on, the site’s residents numbered nearly 30,000. And what was it that triggered this machine-gun growth? Well, the discovery of gold nearby inspired hordes of keen prospectors to race into town brandishing pans and pickaxes.
18. Unknown Saloon – Unknown State (1895)
A primitive type of 3D photography, stereographs – such as the one pictured here – were captured by a device capable of dual exposures. The neighboring images it produced would then be inserted into a curious pair of spectacles. And as the viewer looked closer, the two images would line up in their mind and appear as a single richly textured shot. Clever stuff, right?
17. Unknown Courthouse and Saloon – Langtry, Texas (1900)
Where else – other than the Wild West, of course – could you find a courtroom dishing out both “ice beers” and legal sentences simultaneously? In this snap, taken at the turn of the 20th century, Judge Roy Bean convicts a rustler for his crimes. All from the comfort of a saloon porch, order in the land “west of the Pecos” is upheld.
16. Unknown Saloon – Klondike, Alaska (Early 1900s)
If this Wild West snap seems too good to be true, then that’s probably because it is. There’s the image’s peculiarly neat composition for starters, with every face in the room perfectly visible. And then there’s the crispness of the capture. A real drunken scuffle would have surely triggered enough movement to disrupt the exposure – yet there’s not a hint of blur in sight here. All in all, then, this liquor-laced quarrel appears to be largely fictional.
15. J. W. Swart’s Saloon – Charleston, Arizona (1885)
The phrase, “You get what you pay for” is especially true of Old West alcohol. Yes, the liquor sold for next to nothing – just 25 cents could often buy you a couple of glasses of whiskey – but the quality was far from premium. In truth, drink purveyors would maximize their earnings by bulking out their booze with anything they could find, even turning to chili powder and harmful chemicals.
14. Unknown Saloon – Unknown State (1890s)
It’s a rare treat to spot someone smiling in a frontier-era photograph. The exposure time of old cameras meant donning the same expression for quite some time, after all. Rather than straining for a smirk, then, many subjects tended to simply relax their faces. That said, the most committedly chirpy souls would still sustain hearty grins for as long as necessary – just look at the chap with the cane pictured here.
13. Dew Drop Inn Saloon – Unknown State (c.1900)
Forget what the movies taught you; the majority of Old West saloons didn’t even have swinging “batwing” doors. Though a perfect prop for on-screen cowboy capers, cafe doors proved quite impractical in the real American frontier. And the few watering holes that did boast those iconic entry gates also tended to have a larger second set – to lock up safely at night.
12. Toll Gate Saloon – Black Hawk, Colorado (1897)
After prospectors struck lucky in the region, Black Hawk swiftly grew to become the main thoroughfare for Colorado’s quarried riches. And with natural resources abundant, settlers looking to start over – and strike rich, of course – soon followed. Before long, then, the outpost had swelled into one of the Centennial State’s very first metropolises.
11. Wild West Bar – Unknown State (1900s)
With a drink in his hand, a six-shooter on his waist and the best part of an entire large mammal on his legs, this herdsman was really living the rootin’-tootin’ American dream. And note the right arm sat atop the bar, a fan-favorite posture for Old West drinkers. Some prolific saloon-goers, it’s said, depended so dearly on that stock stance that they could even accrue hard, dead blisters on the crooks of their forearms.
10. Brunswick Saloon – Telluride, Colorado (c.1900)
This scene – complete with telephone lines, metal chimneys and even clean wooden pavements – seems one of relative affluence. But for the town of Telluride, Colorado, hard times lay ahead. Into the first decades of the 20th century, the settlement’s precious metals drastically dwindled in value, you see. And it would take generations for the once-prosperous community to bounce back.
9. Various Saloons – Rawhide, Unknown State (Unknown Date)
For the myriad hopefuls eager to forge new lives in the American frontier, a bothersome obstacle first had to be traversed: getting there. And before trains were carved across the country, wagon trains were the preferred mode of transport for most budding settlers. But thanks to violent weather, frequent bloody encounters and the spread of crippling infections, many thousands perished on those treacherous trips.
8. Road House Saloon – Bluff City, Alaska (c.1906)
The Wild West wasn’t all dust-caked cowboys and sprawling, sun-bleached earth; it stretched right up to the icy wilds of Alaska. As the frontier era drew to a close further south, in fact, numerous pioneers – hoping to keep the glory days alive – headed up to America’s Last Frontier. In other words, they did as the state’s slogan now promises and headed “north to the future.”
7. Behling Bros. Pool Room – Concord, Michigan (1890-1910)
The much-replicated cowboy kit of chaps, caps and checkered shirts is nowhere to be seen in this old pool-hall snap. Instead, various other Old West garbs are showcased – with everything from sharp waistcoats to grubby dungarees in sight. There was more to frontier-era fashion than simply denim and leather, after all; outfit choices would vary greatly depending on a person’s wealth and occupation.
6. John Hoffman & Co. Saloon & Grocery – Unknown State (Unknown Date)
In the good old days of saloons – or bad, depending on your morals – every aspect of the business was up to the whim of the proprietor. Barrelhouse owners could keep the place open just an hour a week or simply never close their doors. A shady history of violence, theft and general chicanery? Nobody’s asking! So long as the drinking den’s keeper paid their dues to the state authorities, the liquor could keep on flowing – no matter the consequences.
5. Santos Saloon – Turlock, California (c.1908)
The first decades of the 1800s saw many states intensify their output of hard liquor. And with saloons across the Old West flogging that potent product in droves, the American public soon suffered from a plague of debilitating drunkenness. Only a dozen or two years later did the European penchant for beer fully stake its claim on U.S. citizens.
4. “Temporary” Saloon – Turlock, California (c.1908)
Picture the scene… You’re a few days into a long journey on horseback. The Golden State is earning its title; with the sun beating down, you’re hot, exhausted and positively parched. And then you’re greeted by this miraculous sight: a saloon carving its way across the countryside, conjuring visions of shelter and sustenance. But the dream soon becomes a nightmare; this drinking den isn’t serving until it reaches the town of Turlock. Despairing, you soldier on…
3. Unknown Saloon – Unknown State (Unknown Date)
Conquerors of both snow and sun, buffalo used to blanket the U.S. landscape from border to border. But as an onslaught of trigger-happy settlers pressed farther into the American West, bison populations were decimated. And having previously relied on the mammals for everything from food to fashion, it was Native American groups who were hit the hardest by this cull.
2. Charlie Binder’s Saloon – Ann Arbor, Michigan (1880)
As well as being rich in liquor and crime, Old West saloons were also hotbeds of political activity. Yes, drinking dens in the frontier era hosted much backroom statecraft and low-level electioneering. According to a comedian of the time, who was later quoted in The New York Times newspaper, the ingredients for a powerful legislative faction back then were simply, “20 barls uv beer, and 300 yards of bolony.”
1. Unknown Saloon – Round Pond, Oklahoma Territory (1894)
Would you believe it, the life of a hard-drinking, ragtag prowler of the plains wasn’t for everyone in the Old West. Many decent dwellers of the frontier, you see, longed for civility in their communities. And how did those proper folk hope to obtain it? By ordering an end to those great bastions of immorality, saloons, of course. Even before nationwide prohibition was enforced, then, the drinking dens of yore were already on their way out.