Published on Thursday, March 27, 2014
Top 10 Great Gambling Halls
of the Old West
By G.R. Williamson
Gambling played an integral role in the lives of the Americans that drove the western movement across the continent during the 19th century. Running the gamut from the opulent emporiums of the Barbary Coast to the dirty tent saloons of the mining towns, all of the "gambling hells" offered whiskey, painted Jezebels, and a chance to take a dance with Lady Luck at the gambling tables.
1. Parker House - Portsmouth Square in San Francisco. On any given day during the early 1850s there was over a half million dollars stacked on its tables. Professional gamblers in top hats and swallow tailed coats were elbow-to-elbow with dirty gold miners, Chinese traders, ships captains, and military men at the forty faro tables inside the Parker House that ran night and day.
2. Long Branch Saloon - Dodge City, Kansas. During its heydays, it ran 24 hours a day skinning drovers' railhead money. While Chalk Beeson owned the saloon, he used a five-piece orchestra to keep the cowboys coming through the doors. Known for its shoot-outs and gunplay, it was where Frank Loving killed Levi Richardson.
3. Vaudeville Theater & Saloon - San Antonio, Texas. The 101 Club, above the saloon, offered cattlemen every form of gambling, including faro, Spanish monte, and twenty-one. Jack Harris, the owner, was shot and killed by Ben Thompson in 1882. Two years later, Ben Thompson and King Fisher (both noted gunfighters) were ambushed and killed in the saloon.
4. Iron Front Saloon - Austin, Texas. Ben Thompson's gambling hall above the saloon on 6th Street was the most popular wagering hole in Austin in the early 1880s. Before taking over the gambling operation, Thompson had served two terms as the City Marshall of Austin.
5. Orient Saloon - Bisbee, Arizona. Gamblers flocked to the mining town dubbed the "Queen of the Copper Camps," to unload the wages of the miners working the Mule Mountains outside Bisbee. Nearly three million ounces of gold and more than eight billion pounds of copper came out of mines. By 1900, Bisbee was the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco.
A faro game at the Orient Saloon. Photo by C. S. Fly, ca. 1900.
6. Palace Variety Theater - Denver, Colorado. This was the top gambling saloons in Denver, offering alluring dancehall girls and wide-open tables. It had a series of owners— Bat Masterson managed and then purchased the Palace Variety Theater in 1888. It was there that he met and married the actress, Emma Walters.
7. Tivoli Club - Denver, Colorado. Owned by J.R. (Soapy) Smith, the most infamous confidence man of the Old West, it was noted for the "caveat emptor" warning sign above the stairs where a string of suckers climbed the stairs daily only to stomp back down— broke and cussing.
8. Oriental Saloon -Tombstone, Arizona. Billed as, "The most elegantly furnished saloon this side of the Golden Gate," Wyatt Earp worked there as a faro dealer before the OK Corral shootout. Luke Short, another house dealer, shot and killed Charles Storms just outside the saloon.
9. Monte Carlo Saloon - Dawson City, Canada. "Swiftwater" Bill Gates, a true gambling legend, traveled to San Francisco to personally pick the best liquors and "percentage girls" to make his gambling place the showcase of the Yukon.
10. Bird Cage Theater - Tombstone, Arizona. Reputed to be the scene of 26 killings, the NY Times dubbed the saloon as being, "The Wildest, Wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast." There was a basement "no limit" poker room that legend says ran continuously twenty-four hours a day for eight years, five months and three days. Millions changed hands during that time with the house raking in 10 percent.
G.R. (Ron) Williamson is a historian, a western writer and a born storyteller. He has published three non-fiction books on the West, many magazine and newspaper articles, and several Western movie screenplays. His home is in Kerrville, Texas where he lives with his wife and Chihuahua, "Shooter."
His books include Frontier Gambling, The Texas Pistoleers, and Willis Newton: The Last Texas Outlaw.
His books on Kindle include John King Fisher: King of the Nueces Strip and Notorious Gamblers of the Old West. For more information visit his website.