I recently took the CalTrain from San Jose to San Francisco, as well as the Bay Area BART train along many of its stops. I would get off the train at each stop and see what liquid fascinations were nearby.
It would fill novels to talk about all the cool places that are near California train stops. So I will take a little time in the coming weeks to focus on a few of the great highlights of this trip.
Let’s start with a vital piece of California bar history. Heinhold’s First And Last Chance (Map location) *Nearest train stops: Amtrak Jack London Square Station and BART Lake Merritt station.
The story starts at the end of prohibition.
December 5th is known as “Repeal Day”, and was the day in 1933 that the 21st Amendment was passed in the United States cancelling the law that stated:
Section 2. The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use there in of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.
Every state accepted the lift on the prohibition of alcohol on that day, except Mississippi, which waited until 1966 to re-legalize alcohol! (I got thirsty typing that)
While there may still be ‘dry’ counties in the United States, and Canada, there is no Federal provision in either country mandating it. A notable one continues to be Moore County, Tennessee. It is home to the Lynchburg based distillery, Jack Daniels. JD is one of the worlds largest whiskey brands but cannot be sold in stores or restaurants within its home county.
Countrywide Prohibition began on January 16, 1919. But that was not the case for everyone. The Anti-Saloon League, and other groups were active for some time, telling anyone who would listen that all the worlds problems would be effectively eradicated with the removal of alcohol from society.
An early stronghold for the Anti-Saloon League was on the campus of UC Berkeley. Jen Muehlbauer noted in her blog post, “Berkeley’s Premature Prohibition” that there were deep East Berkeley vs. West Berkeley divisions,
“West Berkeley, was where most of the saloons were and was dominated by manufacturing. East Berkeley was steered by university life, which meant something different back when the college president was a minister…The state legislature was nervous about putting impressionable youngsters in easy reach of alcohol, especially students at a college with a lot of clergymen in powerful positions, so [in 1873] they enacted a law banning the sale of liquor within two miles of the University”
Going though Library of Berkeley records from that time, and in reading the excellent Berkeley Bohemia: Artists and Visionaries of the Early 20th Century one gets a fascinating picture of the moral struggle, both real and imagined. The campus community had an active chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which championed the prohibition of alcohol as an issue of Christian morality and a means to protect women and children from poverty and domestic abuse.
So this history brings us to the littlest bar that could, Heinhold’s First And Last Chance
Built from the timber of a retired Whaling ship in 1880, and open continuously since 1883, the bar opened by Johnny Heinold for the investment of $100. He called it, “J.M. Heinold’s Saloon“. The bar has been popular since the start. Notable faces that have filled its tiny space over nearly a century and a half:
Jack London was a true local. He mentions Johnny Heinold and his Saloon 17 times in his 1913 classic novel “John Barleycorn: Alcoholic Memoirs”. He is the namesake of the Jack London Square that Heinhold’s sits in today. The bar has a secondary name on its signage, “Jack London’s Rendezvous”.
Oakland mayor John L. Davie (who was so popular he served for 18 years) brought American President William H. Taft in for a drink. Literary giant Robert Louis Stevenson killed time at Heinhold’s while waiting for his ship outfitted for his final cruise to Samoa. “Poet of the Sierras”, Joaquin Miller hung his hat in the Saloon often. Robert Service, best known for his poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee”, wrote in the cramped and slanted bar. Charles E. Markham the Poet Laureate of Oregon from 1923 to 1931 (He has 9 schools named after him!) was known to tipple at Heinhold’s. Author Erle Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason, was a customer. Erskine Caldwell , who wrote “Tobacco Road” , was a regular. Ambrose Bierce, the famous journalist who notably disappeared without a trace in 1913, was known to have drinks at Heinhold’s.
The bar that tilts. On April 18, 1906 an estimated 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit the Bay Area, killing thousands. The Saloon was one of the few buildings to survive the devastation. But it left a few not so subtle hallmarks. The floor is heavily slanted, as is the bar. The original support piles settled too far down in the mud to be recovered after the violent shaking. The original clock on the wall is at the time of the quake. The camber has surely sent a few beers sliding off the edge since 1906.
And then there was all that ballyhoo about prohibition. Heinhold’s was able to serve the military personnel stationed on the ‘dry’ Alemeda island, to the immediate west. (The Island is now home to St.George Spirits and Hangar One distillery, more on that later) It was also truly the “First And Last Chance” to have a drink, because as you moved inland towards Berkeley there was that pesky UC Berkeley University two mile perimeter ban on alcohol. That ban lasted off and on for almost 60 years! Many sailors headed on long sea voyages stopped into Heinhold’s for what was often their last sip, given the unpredictability of the ocean or the battles they fought. There is a wall with money still pinned to it, left by men to pay for a drink when they returned. Something that sadly many could not manage. So the moniker took hold in 1920 and never went away.
During Federal Prohibition Heinhold’s sold food to stay open. Rumors go that sailors continued to bring new supplies to keep its liquor sales going undercover, which is pretty easy to believe.
It is a fascinating space. It is the only bar in California still using gas lights. They are the originals from its 1880 construction.
Today it has a beautiful large patio out front where you can sip cocktails or local craft beers and enjoy the marina view.
So that concludes stop one. A bar that has been open continuously for 130 years and looks every bit its age.