When the town of Breckenridge was in its infancy, it wasn’t just those searching for gold in the ground that populated the streets. Others who flocked to the area were hoping to get rich by mining the miners, and there were three professions that were almost guaranteed to line the pockets: saloon keepers, lawyers and prostitutes.
In the 1880s, there were a solid 18 saloons along Main Street, a testament to the integral role the establishments played in the town’s history.
The Breckenridge Heritage Alliance (BHA) offers a Behind Swinging Doors Saloon Tour every Friday, offering a glimpse into a whiskey-fueled past.
BHA tour guide Rick Galgas is an East Coast transplant that moved to the mountains with his wife almost four years ago to be closer to their daughter. Dressed in a jean jacket, vest and leather hat, he plays up to his role as he takes some time at the beginning of the tour to get to know his group and their interests. His New Jersey accent gives away his roots, but his enthusiasm for Western history is evident with each story he tells.
By day Galgas works on the hill, but sought out a position with the BHA due to his passion for the past, and he has been a tour guide in Breckenridge for the last three years. The man is no stranger to taking guests on a journey through time, however, as he was a tour guide in Ellis Island, New York, for four years before moving to higher grounds.
As the group steps into the early March sunshine, Galgas’ hands work on overtime as he starts with the early history of hooch.
The first Old West saloon to grace the area was at Brown’s Hole in 1822. It was a trapper’s meeting place on the border of Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, where hundreds of trappers, traders, Indians, lone missionaries and famous pathfinders like Kit Carson, Jedediah Smith and Jim Beckwourth assembled yearly to trade goods, gamble, catch up on news, and most importantly — drink, Galgas said. Beaver pelts and sometimes Indian “squaws” were traded for “Taos Lightning,” “rotgut,” “coffin varnish” or “fire water,” as the poor quality 100-proof liquor was called. The same type of rendezvous occurred at Labonte’s Hole near the present-day Dillon Dam in the 1830s.
It was the 1850s when saloons as we know them really started gracing towns.
“Before that it was mostly just tents set up, it could be a wagon, with saloon or whiskey misspelled on it, with two empty barrels and … the saloon keeper would dip into the barrel and sell you a cup of whiskey,” Galgas said.
As the first gold rush swelled the town to around 8,000 hopefuls looking to get rich, whiskey became a common way to drown the sorrows of those who didn’t score the mother load, which was mostly everyone. By the late 1860s, Breckenridge dwindled to a few hundred individuals and it wasn’t until the late 1870s that the second mining boom brought the crowds back to town. This boom was made possible by the railroad being routed through Breckenridge in 1882.
The railroad made delivering goods to the mountains significantly easier, and the town took off, and with it, drinking establishments. The saloon keeper became a highly respected profession. It was common back then, as it is today, for saloons to offer specials to draw the miners in, and some would travel from bar to bar for free beer.
Hurdy gurdy girls would grace the saloons, and these women would dance with lonely miners for the price of a drink, with the girl pocketing half the dollar. Hurdy gurdy girls are not to be confused with prostitutes, as many of them only danced with the men. These women could make a significantly better living than the miners, with some women dancing with 50 to 100 men a day, earning $25 to $40, when it was common for the miners to be earning $2.50 a day.
In 1891, church officials were able to influence law where saloons had to close on Sundays, and close by midnight during the week. It lasted about four or five months before the church bell tower mysteriously blew up.
“About a week later the town fathers just started looking the other way and that was it, and the saloons were open again in Breckenridge,” Galgas said.
It wasn’t until towns were established when beers started becoming common. Because it took weeks to travel with goods, liquor was more common because it was more bang for the buck.
One of the first breweries in Colorado was located in what was once known as Parkville, a competing mining town in the Blue River Valley, where the end of Tiger Road is now. It was owned by Henry Weiss, and began operation — brewing German Style lager beer — in 1861. The brewery only lasted about a year.
By 1880, Anheuser-Busch was expanding nationally and rolled into Breckenridge about the same time. This expansion was made possible by its new pasteurization process and artificially refrigerated rail cars and ice houses. This new beer, called Budweiser, was the first cold beer served in Breckenridge saloons. Before that beer was served at just below room temperature at 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Colorado enacted prohibition in 1916 — three years before it became federal law. It was repealed in 1933 nationwide. It was almost impossible to enforce, and bootleg liquor, stills, speakeasies and back room bars were everywhere — including Breckenridge.
LEAVING A LEGACY
The saloons were a man’s domain, and honest women did not enter them, so when more women started showing up in town, the saloons began losing business. Saloon keepers found other ways to bring whole families in, such as building bowling alleys.
“Now they could have families come in, and the husband or father could drink at the bar while the wife was bowling with the kids in the other room,” Galgas said. “That was a lure to bring women here, because the women wanted their men to stay home, and the saloon business started to go downhill.”
Saloons became more than just a watering hole, and served as concert halls, funeral homes, churches, post offices, liveries, barber shops and even a place to vote.
Stopping off for a quick beer at the Gold Pan, the third oldest saloon site in Colorado, Galgas wrapped up the tour.
“It has been said … that with the exception of Little Bighorn, all Western history was made in saloons, and if you think about it, states were named in saloons, capitals were decided in saloons, elections were held in saloons — Western history was made in saloons.”