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Whiskey Row
PORTRAIT OF A STREET

Photo courtesy Sharlot Hall Museum
This photograph shows Prescott’s Montezuma Street in the early 1890s. Cobweb Hall,
“the only two-bit saloon in town,” is on the left, and the Hotel Burke — referred to as the
Burke-Hickey Hotel in this excerpt — is on the right. © Sharlot Hall Museum

By Charles C. Niehuis
(An excerpt from our 1938 issue)

They built the first one out of logs, down on Granite Creek, and called it the Quartz Rock Saloon; that was back in 1864. But, as one Old Timer said, “The sight of water made the customers sick,” so they built the rest of ’em up on Montezuma Street and called it Whiskey Row.

By 1874 there was a full block of saloons and gambling halls, where, they say, the best “gambleers” of the world took postgraduate courses in games of chance. That block became the epitome of the Old West.

Taking advantage of poetic license, let’s call a halt in the march of time, and retreat to the middle eighties. Here we go down on the Row to live again, one night, with some of the characters who made it famous.

It’s Saturday night, and the boardwalk is packed with jostling, noisy, pleasure-bent cowboys, prospectors, miners and soldiers. We split our throats on a cowboy yell, and it’s echoed by some celebrating caballero on the other end of the Row. We see no cold-eyed, deft-fingered, frock-coated gamblers because they’re all inside “working.”

And we meet no women except those in the saloons, and they will be dance-hall girls. Of course no respectable women are seen on Whiskey Row tonight. But they do invade the Row en masse on New Year’s Eve — gala night of the year — dressed and masked so as to be absolutely anony- mous. Queer custom of the roaring Old West that allowed its good women to see how the other half lived!

Whoa, careful there — watch your feet! The level of the walk has its ups and downs. We step up to one level in front of one store, and drop down to planks laid on the ground in front of another. If the proprietor is wealthy, or even just doing well, he’ll build his walk up off the ground. Must be rough going for some of these boys that have had several snorts too many.

As we near a saloon, the swinging doors open, belching forth three soldiers, arm-in-arm, singing, weaving. Let’s go in! It’s Dan Thorne’s place, saloon and gambling hall.

The place is packed! Soldiers are everywhere. It’s payday at Fort Whipple and they’re in to gamble and drink. The fitful yellow glare of smoking oil lamps lights up the place.

“Round and round it goes; where the ball stops nobody knows.”

It’s the sing-song from the dealer of the roulette wheel! The click of the chips sounds as the men “get down” with their bets. The dealer’s voice drones out: “Nine, red and odd, pay the winners and get down for the next roll.”

Deft fingers pick up the ivory ball from the cup of the turning wheel and send it spinning, faster than sight, around the groove.

Chips click again as we walk past the crap [sic] table.

“Who’s that on the high-legged chair with his hat pulled low over his eyes and a sawed-off shotgun across his knees?” you ask. He’s the lookout! If a hold-up or trouble should occur you’d see him blaze into action!

We stop at the faro table.

The dealer is down to the last three cards. Soldiers lean forward to make the last play on the deal. They look at the “cases” kept by [an old-timer] to see what cards will be the last two and they’ll bet on the order of their appearance.

A drunken soldier leans over and places a stack of chips on one of the cards to show.

“All bets down,” monotones the dealer. He slips the cards out of the box! Bedlam breaks loose!

The cases are wrong and the drunken soldier grabs the faro table and overturns it in the dealer’s lap. We scramble to safety behind the bar; and none too soon! Cuspidors fly, comet-like, through the air. Chairs and tables crash on the heads of soldiers, and gamblers, alike.

The biggest free-for-all Whiskey Row ever saw is under way. What a fight!

A hundred men, swinging bottles, chairs, table legs, spittoons — anything that’ll knock a man out — are milling in front of us. The air is sulphurous with curses, shouts and yells!

A man goes down, to be lost from sight by a rush of feet.

Shots spat into the ceiling as a cowboy steps through the swinging doors, to join the scrap. He stops. Then a fusillade of shots rings out. Only the stabbing flash from his guns lights the darkness. He’s shot out the lights!

Just before the last one went out, over the bar, we saw Dan Thorne, proprietor, climb up on the polished mahogany. He is gloriously drunk! “Yip-yip-yip-eeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Go to it soldier, give those gamblers hell!”

We slip along the bar and out of the door — just in time! A flying squad of M.P.’s from the post, go roaring into the saloon.

Breathing a sigh of relief, we push our way through the crowd and up the street and turn into the wide door of the Cobweb, the only two-bit saloon in town. Other places are twelve and a half cents a drink, or two for a quarter — they don’t have nickels and dimes on the Row.

Billy Vanderbilt runs this place and that’s he at the end of the bar, the bald headed fellow with the handlebar mustache, drinking with a couple of cronies.

He’s just finishing a story as we step up. The listeners roar with laughter and Billy slaps the bar, saying, “Belly up, boys, and have a drink on the house! Set ’em up, Baldy.”

Baldy Brown takes our order and men get up from tables to get theirs. We shake the clutching hands of a dance hall girl off our elbows, and pick up our drinks.

Billy Mulvenon, sheriff of Yavapai County, walks in as we finish. Vanderbilt greets him, “Hi, Sheriff!” Mulvenon orders straight whiskey, and stands silent.

Vanderbilt continues, “See you got the Grahams in the jail tonight. Are the Tewksburys comin’ in?”

“Yep, they rode in late’s ’evenin’. It’s the only way I can keep ’em separated. The Tewksburys’ll be in jail tomorrow, and the Grahams’ll have the run of the streets. Can’t let ’em both out at the same time ’cause they’ll get to shootin’ and wreck the town. Damn this feudin’, anyway!”

The sheriff tips his head back and the whiskey slides down his throat.

Well, let’s go see the Cabinet before we call it a night.

As we thump down the boardwalk, we pass Dan Thorne’s place. It’s a wreck! But the boys are lined up three and four deep in front of the bar. We get a glimpse of Dan sitting on the end of the bar and catch a line of a lusty ballad he’s singing.

As we enter the Cabinet, Ed Roberts, who is tending bar, greets us heartily and we order drinks from him.

Mike Hickey, usually the most genial of Irishmen, comes in and we have a drink on him. He’s the co-partner of Burke, and they have the Burke-Hickey Hotel on the corner of Gurley and Montezuma — on the end of Whiskey Row. Tonight Mike seems a trifle on the morose side. He waves his glass before he downs it.

“Boys, I’m lettin’ you know; Tom Hallahan’s a’gunnin’ for me. This may be my last drink!”

We’re standing in back of Mike, he’s between us and the door. We step out from behind Mike as the swinging doors of the saloon crash against the wall. In strides Tom Hallahan!

Mike, crouching slightly, the fingers of his right hand resting lightly on the edge of the bar, speaks, “Here I am, Tom — and ready!”

Hallahan pushes his hat back slowly with his right hand, and starts stepping sideways, edging around with each step. Mike turns as slowly, facing Hallahan. His fingers slide off the bar, but the hand doesn’t drop. Mike is waiting.

Hallahan begins biting off words, “I told you if you messed around with that gal of mine I was going to shoot you!”

Mike answers evenly, “Well, Tom, I’m still a-waitin’.”

Hallahan explodes — temper and gun! His first shot misses, and goes into the back-bar mirror. Before he can shoot again, Mike has shot and missed.

Tom Hallahan pauses. Mike has his pistol between his knees, working the action like mad. He slaps the cylinder! It’s jammed!

The white heat of anger leaves Tom.

“Aw, let’s call it off, Mike. She ain’t worth it!”

“Not if I get this gun workin’,” pants the slow-to-anger Mike.

Hallahan raises his 44! He turns five shots loose into the ceiling. “Now! Forget it, Mike.”

Ed Roberts, taking advantage of the lull, breaks in soothingly — “Belly up, boys, it’s on the house.”


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