Frontier Saloons

You cannot watch a western film (with few exceptions) without images of the local saloon replete with dance hall girls, gaming tables, the barkeep serving customers whiskey and beer from behind a long wooden bar, gunfights or fistfights erupting over a card game or a girl, traveling thespians attempting Shakespeare in front of drunken and raucous crowds, and courtesans entertaining guests in the upstairs rooms.

Though stereotypical, these images of the Old West have their basis in fact. Frontier saloons began as little more than tents, sod, or adobe structures with wooden planking to avoid the mud and excrement from horses tethered outside. However, as the mining or cattle industries flourished, so did the evolution of these establishments. Often the exterior walls were nothing more than false fronts erected to attract more customers, but wood, brick, and glass eventually replaced earlier rudimentary structures while hand-carved bars with brass railings took the place of barrels and sawed lumber, spittoons eliminated spitting on the floor, and mirrors, oil paintings, and chandeliers graced the interiors.

Tombstone, Arizona was home to one such saloon, The Oriental. It was a place where a man could escape the monotony, drudgery, harshness and uncertainty of life while living out his fantasies.

Tombstone had developed first as a mining camp. Silver had been discovered in 1878; there had been only a hundred desperate souls in the beginning hoping to strike a vein and get rich quick, but by 1880 it was considered a “boom town” with over 3,000 residents. Naturally, the gaming business moved in along with the influx of inhabitants, and the Oriental opened its doors in July of that year.

Many frontier saloons were nothing more than canvas tents with false wooden fronts and the establishment’s name on the entrance. They specialized in unrefrigerated beer and hard liquor, mostly whiskey – bourbon and rye. Sometimes that whiskey was nothing more than “Rotgut” made from raw alcohol, burnt sugar and tobacco juice. The Oriental, however, was a much more cultured establishment, with hitchin’ posts out front for the horses, a broad boardwalk at the entrance, swinging doors for easy access, a long hand-carved wooden bar with a brass foot rail where unaltered spirits, even champagne were served by the glass or bottle, carpeting – though with dusty/muddy streets, this proved more of a liability than an asset – glass mirrors and oil paintings, a piano, and “dancing girls” to draw in the clientele.

The girls offered companionship and solace to men who spent long lonely hours working their  mining claims or to the cowboys lonely after a long ride. A buck could get you a “poke”, and for those with money and more perverse carnal desires, just about anything could be “negotiated” at a price. – excerpt from Palo Duro.




Author: maxknight73

Retired Army Officer and Counterintelligence Specialist. Currently living in San Antonio, Texas with his wife Gray. Cancer survivor. Avid history buff and writer.

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