Travel Features

The West's Best Saloons

Sherry Monahan and I mix it up with Buckskin Frank Leslie, Tom & Jerry and a Hub Punch.

Sherry Monahan and I mix it up with Buckskin Frank Leslie, Tom & Jerry and a Hub Punch.

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I’m sitting in some waterin’ hole with Sherry Monahan.

She’s the popular historian, author of Tombstone’s Treasure and The Wicked West, a woman with a passion for boozers, cruisers, gamblers and saloons. Lots of saloons. There’s only one reason she’d be in a dramshop with a guy like me: I’m dreaming.

After all, this isn’t the Long Branch. The bar’s a warped pine plank nailed to empty whiskey kegs, and the beer-jerker serving us is Buckskin Frank Leslie. Behind us, Wild Bill Hickok is exchanging words and lead with some 7th Cavalry boys. I order a root beer. Sherry requests an eggnog.

Definitely a dream.

“Root beer and eggnog were among the most popular drinks served in 1881,” Sherry says. “Numbers 12 and 8, respectively. That gives me an idea.” Her drink has changed to a Whiskey Punch, the No. 5 drink in 1881. “Let’s name the top 10 saloons in the West, starting at No. 10 and working down to the West’s best!”

I toss down my ginger pop, No. 11 for those of you keeping score at home. “You go first.”

No.10

“No. 10,” Sherry says, “the Willow Creek Cafe & Saloon in Willow Creek, Montana.”

I nod. “You won’t find many bars in Montana that serve oysters on the half-shell or chicken saltimbocca.”

“It’s not the oldest saloon, but the Willow Creek’s in a 1910 building that started off as the Corner Saloon,” Sherry says. “The building has also housed a cafe, barber shop, pool hall and meat shop.”

Behind us, Morgan Earp just got shot in the back playing billiards. We order another round.

No.9

“No. 9,” I say, “the What Cheer Saloon in Columbia, California.”

Sherry nods. “It’s in the Columbia City Hotel. The Ale House served countless miners and others who came to California during the Gold Rush. And that cherrywood back bar is a piece of art. It’s been at the What Cheer since the saloon opened in 1857. They shipped it around the Horn from Boston.”

“What are you doing in a place like this?” I ask Sherry.

“I shouldn’t be. Even though many saloons were more or less respectable, Victorian women did not go into them because no respectable woman dared enter a saloon—it just was not proper. Not to mention that men did not want them there; it was a place where they could seek solace among their brethren.” She slams her beer bottle across the head of the guy sitting next to us, dropping him like a fly, lifts his wallet and finishes his Hub Punch (No. 14).

No.8

It’s Sherry’s turn, but I beat her to the draw and announce No. 8 before she can, because, hey, it’s my dream. “No. 8, Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood, South Dakota.”

“That’s it,” Wild Bill declares. “I’m out of here.” He quickly storms through the door, taking his Tom & Jerry (No. 9) with him.

“Wild Bill was playing poker in Nuttall & Mann’s No. 10 Saloon on August 2, 1876, when he cashed in,” Sherry says, “and today the current Old Style Saloon No. 10 is part museum, part saloon. Poker, blackjack and slots are played in the Utter Place.”

No.7

“No. 7,” Sherry says, “the Occidental Saloon in Buffalo, Wyoming.”

“It’s certainly one of the best preserved hotels and...

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