In the mid-1800s the discovery of gold in the part of Kansas that was to become Colorado had Argonauts flooding down the Cherokee, Smoky Hill, and Arkansas trails in hopes of hitting it rich.
In modern times it is hard or maybe impossible for us to fathom what it was like for these immigrants heading into the unknown and undeveloped frontier. They risked their lives, and many died from Native American attacks along the road, disease and starvation. There was no guarantee of finding an inn along the way, much less a bank or grocery store. In fact, most often the only wayside inns for these wary travelers was the shelter found underneath a large Cottonwood along the way.
While much of the conveniences they left behind in Missouri and Georgia were impossible to find in this forlorn and desolate place, later to be called Denver, there was one staple that would travel with them: the saloon.
The saloons that were found along the trails bore little resemblance to traditional eastern inns. Some came in the form of whiskey-filled wagons with signs reading things like: “Old Bourbon Whiskey Sold Here.” Most of these improvised establishments were a combination of grocery and dry goods stores. Horace Greeley, famous editor of the New York Tribune told of one encounter with such a place. On the trail he came upon a tent with a sign that said: “Grocery.” Greeley found the proprietor sleeping on the ground among some whiskey barrels. He woke him from his slumber to inquire about some crackers, bread, or ham, and the proprietor responded that he did not have any dry goods, but “I have got some of the best whiskey you ever seen since you was born!”
Dozens of roadhouses lined the trails heading into Colorado along the Cherry Creek. Only two of them still stand: the 17-Mile House and the 4-Mile House (both aptly named for their distance from the downtown area of what would eventually be named Denver).
At a time when water could kill a person with cholera, typhoid, dysentery, or yellow fever (ravaged Denver in the 1870s), beer or spirits were not just wanted beverages, they were very much needed. Of course, many drank with the sole intention to get inebriated in the Old West, as in any other time in world history, but everyone consumed to avoid the unhealthy and contaminated water near the settlements. While much of these libations were extremely crude by modern standards, the boiling of the wort, and the distillation of the spirits made the beverages safe. Doctors prescribed whiskey and moonshine for ailments of all kind, and no doubt alcohol made the frontier people’s life a little more bearable.
The custom of the day in the early saloons was to serve a patron an empty tumbler, a bottle of whiskey, and another tumbler half-filled with water, so the drinker could drink it the way he/she liked. It was a far cry from the Scottish practice of adding water drops to a nice single malt, but this was the wild west.
Within two years of Green Russell’s gold discovery in the Cherry Creek near Denver’s oldest bar (My Brother’s Bar), there were more saloons, breweries, and grog shops per capita then any other time in Denver history. It is hard to believe with the modern craft beer explosion in the Mile High City, but in 1860, before Denver was even a territory, there was 1 saloon/135 residents. In 2015 the ratio is considerably less: just 1 drinking establishment/3,000 people.
Popular temperance hymn in 1860’s Denver*:
There’s a spirit above and a spirit below,
The spirit of love and the spirit of woe.
The spirit above is the spirit divine,
The spirit below is the spirit of whiskey