Much of the social life in early mining camps centered on their saloons, not surprising, perhaps, since the population of such frontier places was largely male. Idaho City was no exception.
There were other forms of entertainment available in the town, such as the Jenny Lind Theatre, named for the internationally acclaimed soprano known as the Swedish Nightingale. Theatrical companies, both resident and transient, performed plays ranging from melodrama to comedy to Shakespeare. Hurdy Gurdy Houses featured companies of young German dancing girls, their musicians and chaperones. They danced with lonely miners, typically for 50 cents a dance and a drink for themselves and partner for another 50 cents. The Hurdies were not prostitutes, but Idaho City had its share of those.
Most saloons offered gambling and some had pool tables. A few featured musical entertainers, like the famous Irish violinist Johnny Kelly, who, it was said, could move strong men to tears with his playing.
The Idaho World carried advertisements for saloons and news items about them from its earliest issues. On Nov. 19, 1864, this appeared: Thomas Prior has spent considerable dust (gold dust, that is) in fitting up his saloon, and has made it exceedingly comfortable for winter headquarters. His stock of Ale, Porter, Lager, Wines, etc. are of the choicest brands. Those visiting him once invariably go again. Priors Main Street saloon was only one of 24 listed in George Owens 1864 Directory. The great fire of 1865 would destroy them all, but most were back in business within a few days.
We are constantly reminded by stories in the Idaho World that saloons were dangerous places, especially since most of their customers were armed with guns or knives, and often with both. In December 1864, the paper reported, A difficulty occurred at one of the saloons a few evenings ago between a man named Orrick and Hugh Kurtz, during which Orrick discharged a pistol, missing Kurtz and wounding A.J. Barlow and John Conner who happened to be standing nearby. The ball passed through Barlows leg and struck Conner below the knee cap. Both are doing well. Orrick gave bonds for his appearance. Not as lucky was John T. Ladd, accidentally shot by Charles Whitson at Buena Vista Bar on Christmas Day 1864. The parties were drinking together, when a pistol held by Whitson accidentally discharged hitting Ladd in the thigh. He died at 6 oclock on the 26th. A coroners jury returned a verdict of death by accident.
In February 1865, Joseph Griffin shot his drinking companion in the hip and the knee after the two had been skylarking in Whites Exchange Saloon. The wounds were not serious. That April, the World commented that Idaho City surpassed anyplace in the country for drinking and fighting. On May 6, 1865, the paper reported, Forty-one retail liquor saloons dealt out the ardent to probably a hundred men each on an average, making a revenue to the town of about a thousand dollars, and convincing us by the days quiet that water is the principal drug used in the adulteration of liquors.
In its first issue after the 1865 fire, the World printed these ads: Florence Saloon, Kelly Brothers, still open for business in a canvas tent, with a large stock of wines and liquors, just arrived and imported direct from San Francisco. Call around and see us, boys. Lucketts Saloon was reopened the day after the fire in a new building moved onto the spot, and is again supplied with the Choicest Liquors, Wines, and Cigars. We keep the best, and only the best, and respectfully solicit the patronage of the public.
In 1870 the Idaho World editorialized, Business is getting so dull, or money so scarce that we understand quite a number of saloons in this city intend closing up. There is only about a dozen or so more than there ought to be in Idaho City. Two or three houses might do a good business, but as long as a license to sell liquor costs as little as it does now under the Revenue laws, we will have any number of saloons with none of them making more than a bare living. The editor suggested raising the license fee to $100 quarterly, as it would close up nearly all the little doggeries and dead falls where villainous compounds are retailed and dealt out to everyone calling for it, drunk or sober, and where one-half to two thirds of the crimes and violations of the law are hatched.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.