The discovery of gold brought people from around the world to California in the mid-1800s. And it’s in those Gold Rush towns that some of the Golden State’s oldest bars still operate. Here are four historic saloons offering a step back into the Old West.
The Iron Door Saloon, whose sign proclaims it “California’s oldest saloon,” sits on Groveland’s Main Street about 25 miles from the westernmost entrance of Yosemite National Park. “We call it California’s oldest continually running saloon,” said Chris Loh, who owns the bar with his wife, Corinna.
Bullet holes in the ceiling and stories of rattlesnakes that were once kept in cages near the pool tables suggest a rowdy past. The namesake iron doors have not only protected against fires but also have kept out law enforcement. A former brothel upstairs now houses an office and rooms for traveling musicians who perform here.
A longstanding tradition is for patrons to write their name and the date on a dollar bill and pin it to the ceiling. The saloon recently held its 30th Dollar Party fundraiser, which raises money for kids in the Groveland community.
Murphys Hotel has a historic watering hole with “an atmosphere straight out of the 1800s,” its website says. The saloon, about 43 miles northwest of Groveland, showcases moose, elk and deer heads donated by local hunters along with a 31-star American flag on the wall. A fire burns during winter in the bar’s old fashioned potbellied stove.
Calaveras County might be wine country, but in this bar you can order a green shot made with vodka, triple sec and Midori. Its inspiration? Mark Twain, author of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” stayed at the hotel in 1877.
Similar to Groveland’s Iron Door, the Hideout Saloon in historic downtown Mariposa attracts locals and visitors to Yosemite. It’s about 30 miles south of Yosemite along California 140. If you look around, you’ll see dollar bills on the ceiling and historic stone walls, a tradition that dates to the days when miners left their money before they headed out in search of gold.
Hideout patrons are treated to regular live music and karaoke along with open mike nights on Thursdays. Customers can play pool, darts, cards or a variety of other games. Indeed, a great place to hide out.
Ever wonder how all those miners came to California? Look no farther than the Old Ship Saloon’s cocktail menu.
The description for its Gold Rush drink (made with bourbon, lemon and honey) reads, “The fastest mode of transportation to the first stop for the gold fields, San Francisco, was aboard a vessel. By summer 1850, more than 500 vessels were recorded as being anchored in the vicinity of Yerba Buena Cove.”
In 1851, the Old Ship Saloon — built on the ruins of a ship known as the Arkansas — became a bar when an “enterprising Englishman cut a hole in the side of the ship, dropped a gangplank with a sign reading ‘Gud, bad and indif’rent spirits sold here! 25¢ each.”