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How San Francisco's Beer Town Foamed, Then Went Flat

by John Freeman
Copyright 2006

San Francisco's gold rush origins are colored by tales of a wild frontier town, where hard drinking and loose living were the norm and civility seemed to be the exception. Names like the Barbary Coast and the Tenderloin evoke part of the legacy. The western neighborhoods also had a milder concentration of "dens of iniquity" during the frontier days. It was called Beer Town, and though it was pretty lively for forty years, it has disappeared with hardly a trace.

Beer Town was the name given to a five-block stretch of Fulton Street, which started in the 1870s with watering holes servicing patrons of the Bay District Race Track (1875-1896). The horse-racing track covered approximately fifteen blocks of the inner Richmond District from First Avenue (Arguello Boulevard after 1909) to Fifth Avenue, and "A" Street (Anza after 1909) to "D" Street (called Fulton Street after 1895). There were a couple of saloons at the corner of First Avenue and "D", west of the Odd Fellows and Masonic cemeteries, and roadhouses further out "D" Street, but Beer Town started across from the race track grandstands that were on the east side of Fifth Avenue near "D" Street and would eventually run to Tenth Avenue.

View east across 9th Avenue to Beertown. 'The Arbor' beer garden on the corner was once the 'Jockey Club' across from the Bay District Racetrack before being moved four blocks west. In distance is 'The Villa' roadhouse; McAllister Street streetcar #259., circa 1909 -

James Dickey opened a social club for the race-track crowd, thereby founding the first establishment of what would become Beer Town. Mr. Dickey had originally owned a saloon and racehorse rendezvous in 1869 across from the first race track in the Richmond District, Half Mile Track, also called the Agricultural Park, in the area of what is now near 24th Avenue and Geary Boulevard. When the larger race track opened in the inner Richmond, Dickey built a "resort" on the northwest corner of "D" and Sixth Avenue in 1874. It was known as the Bay District Race Track Hotel, but popularly called Colonel Dickey's Road House. 1 There is no record of James Dickey having attained any military ranking, but he affected the title "colonel" in recognition of his reputation as an astute judge of horses. There may not have been many sleeping spaces in his hotel, but if one stayed the night or arrived to watch the horses' early morning workout, the Colonel's cook, a man named Wong, was said to be famous for his breakfasts of tender baking powder biscuits, bacon, and eggs "like a golden sun in a perfect white setting." The roadhouse was also noted for serving fine mint juleps and gin fizzes at any hour. 2

1892 lithographic closeup of Beer Town in the Richmond., n.d. -

From its inception, the Bay District Race Track was very popular, and huge sums were wagered on some of the finest horses in the region. Public transportation to the race track was by the Geary Street, Park and Ocean Railroad, which ran a steam train from Presidio Avenue along Point Lobos Avenue (now Geary), then south on First Avenue, turning west onto "D" and terminating at the corner of Fifth Avenue (1879 -1892). By 1892, the steam dummy was replaced by a cable line that extended the route along Point Lobos Avenue and turned up Fifth Avenue in front of the grand stand, terminating at "D" street. 3 Near the grand stand stood the Jockey Club, which catered to the refreshment needs of the sporting crowd.

In 1888, a steam locomotive spur line was built for Adolph Sutro's Ferries & Cliff House Railway line on California Street, running up Seventh Avenue to a fine waiting shelter on the Golden Gate Park side of "D" Street. 4 In 1892, the Market Street Railway extended its McAllister Street cable line along "D" Street from Stanyan Street, terminating between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.5 The two cable lines shared the two blocks of track, when the Market Street Railway added track and a switch at "D" and Fifth to allow its cars to terminate with the McAllister rail line near the waiting shelter. A number of refreshment stands, saloons, restaurants and horse or bicycle rental businesses would soon be clustered near these "end of the line" stops. An October 1893 promotional piece published in the San Francisco Examiner for the up-coming Midwinter Fair complained about the proliferation of saloons along the Geary Street, Park and Ocean cable car route leading to the fairgrounds. The Examiner said, "the Park is a beautiful place and a thing we can show with pride to our Midwinter Fair Visitors, but is rapidly getting an unsavory frame around it." 6

The Midwinter Exposition opened on January 27, 1894, and two weeks later the third cable line, the Market Street Railway Co., continued the Sacramento Street line from Walnut Avenue, crossing First Avenue to Lake Street, and then bringing passengers up Sixth Avenue to "D". 7 The north side of the Fair Grounds would now be served by three cable lines emanating from Fifth Avenue, Sixth Avenue and along "D", plus a steam train on Seventh Avenue.

With the opening of the Exposition came serious suds. There were beer gardens on the fair grounds in Golden Gate Park, and plenty of liquid refreshments were available at the transit stops outside the park. On the west side of Seventh Avenue alone, there were seven saloons packed next to each other for half a block north of "D" Street. 8 There were an equal number of liquor-selling establishments spaced along "D" Street from Fifth to Eighth Avenue. The Examiner editorial from three months earlier had not been heeded. Beer Town had arrived.

On May 1896, the last race was run at Bay District Race Track, and horse racing was shifted to a new track built out in the Ingleside area. The closing of the track would not greatly diminish traffic to the area, but it did slightly change the draw to other entertainment. The Jockey Club building was moved from Fifth Avenue to the northeast corner of Fulton and Ninth Avenue 9, shifting the drinking establishments another block further west.

The Midwinter Fair had spurned an overabundance of competing saloons, and the subsequent years would see more diversity in Beer Town. By the time Camp Merritt was established on the site of Bay District Race Track for training troops awaiting deployment to the Philippines, the June 9, 1898 San Francisco Chronicle went on a campaign of outrage about the number of saloons near the camp:

"The opening of the many new saloons around Camp Merritt caused complaints to be made to the Police Commissioners last night, and they decided to grant no more licenses for groggeries in the vicinity of the tented field. This decision will occasion no distress to thirsty soldiers, as more than forty barrooms are now furnishing liquid fuel for their inner fires. Thirty-one were established before the regiments encamped at Richmond and thirteen were licensed recently...." 10

The count of forty-four "groggeries" cited by the Chronicle might have been a wee bit exaggerated. A close examination of the 1898-1899 Sanborn Insurance Underwriters' Map of the area shows only about a third of that number, and the city directory only lists nine liquor establishments in those five blocks.

Beer Town was never popular with the Richmond District improvement clubs, whose members conceived of the area as a strictly residential district. The strip of saloons along Fulton and its intersecting avenues was considered a blight. Though it was tolerated in the early years, the improvement clubs grew more vocal against the abundance of saloons as time went on and home development increased. But the area adjacent to Golden Gate Park remained popular for recreation. In 1901, a fifty-room hotel called The Richmond, complete with bar, was built on the northwest corner of Fulton and Ninth Avenue. In 1903, the Chutes, a popular amusement park from Haight Street, lost its lease and relocated in the block of Fulton, "C" Street, Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, with a huge auditorium that seated 3,000 across the street on the southeast corner of Tenth Avenue and "C" Street. Although the Chutes consisted of wholesome family entertainment, it still drew crowds who could support the saloons nearby and perpetuate the image of it being a rowdy area. The neighborhood improvement clubs were too busy dealing with issues of city services, sidewalks, street grading and transportation in the expanding Avenues to do much more than grumble about this enclave of entertainment in their midst.

Chutes amusement park on Fulton street at 10th Avenue, circa 1905, 1905 -

The entertainment row along Fulton Street flourished until the 1906 earthquake and fire gave the catalyst for change. Almost all of downtown was destroyed. After the catastrophe, entertainment venues moved west, out of the fire zone. Fillmore Street became very active for commercial and entertainment purposes, but Beer Town took on a lively air, too. The Chutes was packed with merrymakers from the time it reopened on May 20th. All the downtown theaters had burned, so the Orpheum Theatre contracted to conduct its vaudeville performances at the Chutes Theatre for nine months until a new building could be built in the Fillmore neighborhood.

In September 1906, the San Francisco Call started a campaign against the sin and corruption in this "new" San Francisco. The fire's destruction of the Barbary Coast and the Tenderloin had caused the gamblers and prostitutes to scatter and find quarters "in the midst of respectability" as the Call termed it. 11 In the exposé, the Call cited a number of residential areas of the city where illicit behavior flourished. It even listed the names and addresses of women living at three "disreputable houses" along Fulton Street in the heart of Beer Town. The Richmond Banner applauded the campaign, saying that the Point Lobos Improvement Club would send a thank-you letter "to the Daily Call for taking the stand against the location of houses of ill-fame in the district." 12 The police and community pressure soon had the effect of turning on the lights and watching the cockroaches scatter. The "disreputable houses" disappeared from Beer Town, but the area stayed popular for other recreation.

More respectable entertainment was first brought to the area with the Orpheum's use of the Chutes Theatre for vaudeville. When the New Orpheum moved to Ellis Street near Fillmore, the Chutes kicked off a grand reopening with a lively vaudeville evening on January 21, featuring, among others, Al Jolson doing his black-face act. 13 By February 1907, the Chutes joined the post-quake mania for roller skating, and optimistically opened a 35,000 square foot rink on the northeast corner of Tenth Avenue and Fulton Street. 14 In March, the opera opened its spring season at the Chutes Theatre. The Chronicle reviewer described the Theatre as "only a few degrees better than a circus tent" and complained further that Wallace the lion could be heard occasionally roaring in the nearby Chutes zoo. 15 Despite the attempts by the Chutes to raise the level of entertainment in the area, events beyond their control would doom their plans.

A very bitter and violent strike of the streetcar workers started in May 1907, paralyzing the city's transportation system for four months. Getting to work was problematic for many, who had to decide whether they would ride the "scab cars" run by the local transportation monopoly, the United Railroad. Traveling way out as far as the Chutes, only to be stranded because no streetcar would be available, was more than most people would risk. Through the summer of 1907, Beer Town became Ghost Town. In September, the Milan Opera Company's effort to bring higher culture to the Chutes Theatre was poorly attended. 16 By October, the Chutes closed the only zoo in the city and sold off the animals to a zoo in Vancouver. 17 By November, the Chutes closed the main waterslide, roller-coaster and arcade attractions and leased the theater for school or charity productions.

An event occurred in November 1907 in another part of town that would further hasten the demise of Beer Town. On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Coney Island Park, a new amusement venue, opened on Fillmore Street between Turk and Eddy. This was more than just a rival to the Chutes. Fillmore and the adjoining streets had become the center of entertainment in post-quake San Francisco. The most wildly popular nickelodeons in town could be found there, as well as legitimate theaters, roller-rinks, dance halls and saloons. Beer Town had been upstaged by a more centrally located entertainment district. The driving force behind this neighborhood did not consist of improvement clubs seeking to build a residential identity. The Fillmore Merchant's Association was dedicated to bringing in customers to purchase goods and spend money to be entertained.

The Chutes closed through the winter of 1907 and 1908 for a complete remodeling and addition of new attractions. It reopened on May 1, 1908 to coincide with the festivities surrounding the arrival of the Atlantic Fleet (later nicknamed the Great White Fleet), and it was often patronized by large crowds on sunny weekends for the rest of the year. The Chutes closed on New Year's Eve 1908, and within three months its management announced that it was moving out of the Richmond District and taking over the site of the Coney Island Park on Fillmore Street. The skating rink remained open, but the fad had passed and business was poor. The auditorium was leased out for fund-raising performances, and finally closed for good after the graduation exercises for Star of the Sea Grammar School in June 1909. 18

With the departure of the Chutes and increased residential development in the inner Richmond District, Beer Town began rapidly drying up. The hastily tossed-up saloons built for the Midwinter Fair had been replaced by flats, many now with vacant shops on ground level. The Richmond Banner editorialized in 1912:

"These building are the result of the Midwinter Fair of 1894. They have been occupied for restaurants, saloons, and small stores, but of late years these businesses have not been profitable and now the larger part of the buildings are empty and rapidly going to wrack. The lots facing the Park would be ideal for first-class apartment houses or private residences but the fact that these old buildings remain prevents the construction of modern structures that would invite a better class of tenants. Ever since the big fire the improvement clubs of the district have been fighting against the establishment of disreputable houses in this neighborhood and have to a large extent been successful." 19

Fulton Street, looking west near 7th Avenue, 1920s -

By that time, there were only five saloons and the bar of the Richmond Hotel left in Beer Town. Since 1910, Fernando Nelson had been building fine homes on the block-and-a-half that was once the Chutes site. Multiple-unit buildings were being built all along the side streets north of those five blocks of Fulton Street, and the transformation that the Banner had promoted was taking place. The last remnant of the old neighborhood was the Jockey Club building from the Bay District Race Track days, which had been a beer garden at the northeast corner of Ninth and Fulton for over twenty years. The structure was demolished in 1914, symbolically bringing an end to Beer Town. 20

The neighborhood improvement clubs had their wishes granted. Today, not only are there no saloons in the former Beer Town area, the entire length of Fulton Street facing Golden Gate Park is not zoned for bars or restaurants. The only remnant of that time which remains is the "waiting" shelter on the Golden Gate Park side of Fulton Street, facing Seventh Avenue. The shelter once overlooked all of the action in Beer Town, but it now sits looking at "first-class apartment houses or private residences."

1. San Francisco Call, May 7, 1901.

2. Mathew Brady, "This Old Town", San Francisco Independent, March 19, 1996.

3. Walter Rice and Emiliano Echeverria, When Steam Ran on the Streets of San Francisco, p. 58.

4. Rice & Echeverria, p. 45.

5. Rice & Echeverria, p. 58.

6. San Francisco Examiner, October 23, 1893.

7. Rice & Echeverria, p. 45.

8. San Francisco City Directory, 1894.

9. San Francisco Chronicle, January 25, 1914.

10. San Francisco Chronicle, June 9, 1898.

11. San Francisco Call, September 16, 1906.

12. The Richmond Banner, September 21, 1906.

13. San Francisco Chronicle, January 21, 1907.

14. San Francisco Call, October 21, 1906.

15. San Francisco Chronicle, March 23, 1907.

16. San Francisco Call, October 7, 1907.

17. San Francisco Call, October 20, 1907.

18. The Richmond Banner, June 18, 1909.

19. The Richmond Banner, May 3, 1912.

20. San Francisco Chronicle, January 25, 1914.

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