Gold, Gambling and Girls: A History of The Barbary Coast

“How solemn and beautiful is the thought that the earliest pioneer of civilization, the van-leader of civilization, is never the steamboat, never the railroad, never the newspaper, never the Sabbath-school, never the missionary—but always whiskey!”

-Mark Twain, San Francisco resident from 1864-66

In the early Gold Rush days, the explosive growth of San Francisco created shortages of everything. The unloading point for new goods in town was the first wharf at the base of Pacific Street, and here also the first saloons sprang up. Several were housed in ships abandoned by crews run off for the gold fields, and featured liquor and gambling. Women followed shortly thereafter, lead by French and Chilean harlots. A popular local song at the time stated “The miners came in ’49, the whores in ’51, and when they got together, was born the native son.”

From those rickety saloon ships sprung up a riotous party that lasted seventy years, surviving even the great earthquake and fire of 1906, until the national onslaught of Prohibition finally forced the Barbary Coast to an end. Despite a murder a day, the ever present danger of being “shanghaied” and sold to a ship captain for an involuntary sea voyage, drugged drinks, hidden trap doors, disease and gangs of hoodlums, the Barbary Coast was the wild west’s most popular destination. Dance crazes that swept the nation began here, and entertainment of every stripe could be found in the area’s hundreds of dead falls, concert saloons, melodians, cribs, cow yards and parlor houses.

The birthplace of words such as “madame,” “hoodlum” and “jazz,” the spirit of the Barbary Coast lives on at THE BARBARY COAST REVUE!

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Mark Twain, reporter for the San Francisco Morning Call