Redwood City Saloons: More than just a Watering Hole

To see more historic saloon photos visit our Industry photo gallery. 

To see more historic saloon photos visit our Industry photo gallery. 

Throughout Redwood City history, saloons served an important purpose for hard-working lumbermen, fisherman and construction workers. Upon returning to town after work, they’d quickly clean up at the bath house, put on a fresh shirt and head to the local saloon. Here they came looking not only for refreshing drinks and comfort food, but to connect with friends, hear the latest gossip, get important services and learn about important news that might impact their daily lives. 

In a scene not dissimilar from that of the popular HBO show “Deadwood,” a rough crowd of men populated early Redwood City, with very few women to come home to. The 1880 census put the population of Redwood City at 1,382 people, comprising mostly of men whose primary source of entertainment -- and where many aspects of life took place -- involved the saloon.  For example, the Snug Saloon on Main Street provided a barber shop and bathing facilities, with warm and cold baths available for 25 cents.

For these reasons, the tavern trade flourished. As the Times-Gazette cynically noted -- when announcing the opening of the Eureka Saloon at the corner of Bridge and Mound streets (Between what is now Jefferson and Main on Broadway) -- “The town has long needed an establishment of this kind, there being only about 30 places within our limits where a thirsty man can get a little needed refreshment.”  Although profitable, owning and running a saloon was a grueling job requiring 14-16 hours per day, seven days a week.  One of the more popular saloons—Poplar Saloon—was owned by William “Billy” Callahan, known as the pioneer saloon keeper of Redwood City.  His establishment boasted two billiard tables and an oyster stand connected with the saloon where refreshment could be had at all times.

A mile out of the downtown, another group of saloons served the “Five Points” neighborhood, where Mound Street met El Camino Real and Woodside Road. The isolation from the main part of town sometimes led to violence at these saloons.  One of the most notorious incidents occurred in 1885 when a verbal battle between Central Saloon barkeep Joseph Hidalgo and patron Charles Jefferson led to Hidalgo’s shooting and death three days later.  Another Five Points saloon was the Bernasque, which was built in 1903, and was famous not only for its French food, but also for its discreet lodging house.  The Bernasque thrived for the next 15 years until prohibition and City ordinances forbade the serving of alcohol.  Bernasque was later purchased by two men from San Francisco who renamed it The Fly Trap Inn in 1918. They were part of the new crowd of saloon owners who spent the next 12 years making appearances in the reports of the police, sheriff and federal revenue officers attempting to suppress the liquor trade.  Such was the reputation of the area that Mrs. Jean Cloud, wife of young Roy Cloud (Roy Cloud School is named after his father), recounted that “no respectable woman went through Five Points unescorted.” Children of the 1940s and 1950s remember being warned by their parents to avoid the area both day and night.  With the increasing development downtown and the construction of the Woodside Road overpass in the mid-1960s, the Five Points time in history came to a close, now only remembered in the name of Five Points Tire Imports.

To supply the saloons, Redwood City was lucky to have a few local breweries.  The first brewer to set up shop in 1850 was Michael Kreiss, whose facility was located at the intersection of Willow Street and El Camino Real. The Economic Panic of 1873 doomed Kreiss’ first business effort in Redwood City; however, he wisely kept the land, and tried again in 1877. Calling it Pioneer Brewery, this time Kreiss was successful, eventually adding a soda works, store, and a branch location in Mountain View.  In 1906, the new owner Charles Ehmann renovated the Pioneer Brewery and began to manufacture steam beer.  This business was unfortunately short-lived as the farming lands of Redwood City gave way to houses, reducing raw ingredients and materials needed to manufacture the beer. 

Downtown Redwood City spawned a second brewery when J.H. Offerman and Gevert Plump added the Eureka Brewery to their store, at what was eventually known as Eureka corner -- now the site of the Sequoia Hotel. Close to the docks with a ready clientele, the Eureka Brewery was expanded by then owner Claus Haddon into a warehouse and a new building which incorporated a 45-foot smokestack.  In October of 1902, the most disastrous fire that had ever occurred burned the Eureka Brewery to the ground, and was not rebuilt. 

The influence of the alcohol trade started to wane with the influx of families moving to the peninsula after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.  In 1908, Redwood City’s City Council adopted an ordinance regulating the liquor trade, requiring a $500 per year (roughly equal to $11826.25 today) retail license. They also required bonding papers to carry the names of 10 “persons of good character” vouching for the licensee.  By 1909, the City Council decided to enforce an edict against saloons within 200 feet of a public school, which prompted four of the saloons on Broadway to close. In 1918, the town trustees passed an ordinance which would close the saloons within the city, but allow for the sale of “packaged goods” (bottled liquor). On the evening of June 30, 1918, the saloons of Redwood City closed as legally recognized businesses for the last time.

Prohibition will be covered in a future blog, but suffice it to say, that just because it was illegal to drink, the community did not stop imbibing.  Next time you visit a local bar or pub in Redwood City, raise a glass and join in the tradition of drinking at your local saloon.

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Mary K Spore-Alhadef has been with the Redwood City Public Library in various professional capacities since 1978. She is a graduate of Boston College and has a Masters of Library Science degree from the Peabody Library School at Vanderbilt University.

Sarah La Torra is the Division Manager of Customer Experience at the Redwood City Public Library. She has held various library positions in California since 2003. She holds a Bachelors of Environmental Studies degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara and a Masters of Library and Information Science degree from the University of California at Los Angeles.

Adapted from Redwood City: A Hometown History, Star Publishing Company, Inc., PO BOX 5165 Belmont CA 94002-5165 ISBN: 978-089863-297-2(Available from the Redwood City Public Library Local History Room or Amazon.com)