Monday, April 15, 2019

Louis Teuscher: A Truth-Teller Caught in the Whiskey Ring


Caught cheating the government of revenues on his whiskey, St. Louis distiller Louis Teuscher in 1875 pled guilty and began assisting the prosecution.  Asked  under oath how he ran his distillery, Teuscher, a German immigrant, replied “Vell sometimes straight but most times crooked.”  His candid remark provided a brief moment of levity in a high-profile trial of the infamous Whisky Ring.


Teuscher’s distillery was one of ten seizures made simultaneously in the St. Louis area in May 1875 by special agents assigned by Secretary of the Treasury H. B. Bristow.  Teuscher was absent at the time of the raid, according to Federal records, and did not return for several hours.  By that time Internal Revenue authorities had shut down the plant and confiscated his whiskey.

Arrested and indicted, Teuscher formally was accused of removing 10,000 gallons of whiskey from his distillery: “…On which said spirits the internal revenue tax of 70 cent…imposed by law upon each and every proof gallon…had not been first paid.”  By so doing he had defrauded the government to the tune of $7,000, equivalent to about $154,000 today.  His illegal whiskey was being hidden in a building on the distillery premises, previously unknown to federal inspectors.  There fraudulent tax stamps were applied.

Teuscher pleaded guilty and turned state’s evidence.  The distiller testified for the prosecution in the trial of the kingpin of the Whiskey Ring, Orville P. Babcock, Civil War general and personal secretary and confidant of President Ulysses S. Grant.  He is shown right with the President.  According to the memoirs of former Ring prosecutor David Patterson Dyer, the government treated cooperative distillers like Teuscher as “victims of rapacious officials, or at worst, as having the lesser guilt….”  Dyer pointed out, however, that Teuscher and others had participated willingly with the Ring, not forced at the point of a gun, and any one of them could have “blown the whistle” on corrupt officials at any time.

The German-born distiller and other whiskey men arrested did not go unpunished.  Federal agents confiscated their distilleries and whiskey stocks and took all or part of a $50,000 surety bond provided to the Internal Revenue Service that allowed them to make whiskey.   Originally indicted on felony charges, those were dropped for Teuscher when he agreed to cooperate.  He pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and was sentenced to one day in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Although he spent the designated day in jail, Teuscher apparently balked at paying the $1,000 fine, likely on the grounds that he already had suffered sufficient financial losses for his folly in joining the Ring.  As the U.S. Circuit Court declared:  “Promises of payment were made, but never attended to….”  A writ for Teuscher’s arrest subsequently was issued which he countered with his own suit.  In the end the presiding judge blamed himself for reasons of health and a busy schedule for earlier mistakes in sentencing the distiller and discharged him without requiring he pay the fine.

Information is scant on how Teuscher got to this point.  According to census data he was born in Germany in 1839.  He apparently received the thoroughgoing education provided in the country’s public schools.  His early employment likely involved distilling.  Louis immigrated to the United States in 1875 when he was 36 years old and settled in St. Louis, a city with a large German-speaking population.

There he apparently met his wife, Caroline Arketh, of similar age who had been brought to the this country by members of her family when she was ten years old.  The couple was married in 1867.  In ensuing years Caroline would bear 10 children, six of whom lived to maturity.  They included two sons, Henry and Ernst, who upon reaching maturity would be taken into their father’s liquor business.

Assuming census records are accurate, Teuscher had only been in business two years when the Ring was uncovered.  He seems never to have returned to distilling whiskey after the scandal broke.  In the 1878 St. Louis business directory Teuscher listed himself as a “distiller’s agent” at a location of 2808-2816 North Second Street.  An agent was someone who represented the products of specific distillers to liquor wholesalers and retailers.  By 1880 he was listed as a wholesale liquor dealer, located at Nos. 7 and 9 North Third Street. 

During the early 1900s Teuscher  claimed again to operate a distillery.  My assessment is that he was a “rectifier,” that is, a blender of whiskeys received from outside distilleries.   Teuscher’s flagship label was “Good Times Bourbon,” bearing a label of three men celebrating over a bottle.  The picture was included in a company advertising envelope that assured that the whisky was “Good at all Times.”  

Another brand he sold was “Silver Dollar Rye,” the embossed flask shown below left.  The company also was the St. Louis outlet for the nationally marketed “Old Overholt Rye,” reputedly bottled by Teuscher & Co. “direct from the barrel at the distillery.”  Teuscher may acted as Overholt’s agent for St. Louis and vicinity.

By this time his two sons, Henry and Ernest, were working in Teuscher’s liquor trade.  An 1893 business directory lists them employed as clerks.  Both men  remained bachelors and were living with their parents, according to the 1920 census.  The senior Teuscher, now age 80, was still recorded as actively running his wholesale liquor dealership.  The family home was at 4426 Blair Avenue.  The house is shown here as it looks today, apparently abandoned.

With the onset of National Prohibition in 1920, the Teuschers were forced to shut down their liquor business and it can be assumed Louis retired.  He died in 1923 at the age of 83 and was buried in the Bellefontaine Cemetery of St. Louis, Block 33, lot 2370.  Caroline would join him there in 1929.  The family plot is entered from a stairway that bears the Teuscher name.


Louis Teuscher’s story of disgrace as part of the Whiskey Ring and a redemption that allowed him to continue in the whiskey trade for 43 more years is truly remarkable.  Many who were caught and charged were never able to recoup.  Some left St. Louis to avoid the shame.  Others stayed but went into other occupations.  I am left with the thought that Teuscher’s candor on the witness stand that he operated “sometimes straight but most times crooked” was in a “saving grace.”   Telling the truth may have allowed him to survive and even prosper in St. Louis.

Note:  As cited above, the “Autobiography and Reminiscences” of Richard Patterson Dyer, 1922, were a key reference for this post, as were the transcripts of the several trials involving Teuscher and the Whiskey Ring.  Court documents allow a close look at the details of how the roll-up of the fraud affected this one St. Louis whiskey man.



























Thursday, April 11, 2019

Whiskey Men and Their Steamboats



Foreword:  One of the great technological advances of the 19th Century was the steamboat.  No longer were vessels dependent on the wind for power.  The invention opened up America’s many rivers for commerce, an essential element in the country’s economic development.  Whiskey men were quick to see the advantages of steam, often locating their facilities within easy access to the water.  A handful ventured into owning and operating steamboats themselves, usually successful — but not always.  Here are short descriptions of four such endeavors.  

When Amiran Cole, shown right, arrived from New England in Peoria in 1835 he saw opportunity in its accessibility by road and water and decided to settle there.  Off-loading his trade goods, he opened a store on Main Street, the main commercial avenue.   Two years after establishing his general store, he sold out to one of his clerks and moved in an entirely new direction, becoming a steamboat captain.  

He bought a steamer, named the “Frontier,” and ran it as a passenger packet between LaSalle, Illinois, and St. Louis.  One of the first boats of its kind to ply the Illinois River, it has been cited as “intimately associated with the history of Peoria.”  Shown here is a photo of steamer traffic on the Illinois.  This foray onto the water brought Cole a lifelong title of “Captain.” 



Within several years, however, the Yankee tired of this occupation, sold the ship, and shortly after erected the first whiskey distillery in the history of Peoria, one capable of mashing fifty bushels of grain a day.  It was an inspired move.  By this time Peoria was experiencing considerable growth and would incorporate as a city in 1845.  Saloons were proliferating. Supplies of corn and other grains were abundant and easily accessed.  With Cole leading the way, distilling flourished.  In 1850, 5,685 barrels of whiskey were recorded coming from Peoria.  By 1859 distilling was the major manufacturing interest there, with hundreds of thousands of dollars invested.  Six distilleries and two alcohol works were in operation.

Born into an immigrant Scottish family, brothers Thomas, James and John Gaff found opportunity in Aurora, Indiana, to create a business empire of extraordinary size and breadth.  Founded on revenues from distilling whiskey, Gaff enterprises encompassed a brewery, a fleet of steamships plying the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, Indiana grain and hog farms, a Louisiana plantation, a silver mine in Nevada, turnpike construction, railroad financing, banking, and what may have been the world’s first ready-made breakfast cereal. 

With their multiplying products, it was almost natural that the Gaffs would gravitate to shipping.  They built and owned a fleet of steamboats, among them the Diana, Mary Pell, Eclipse, J.W. Gaff, and Forest Queen.  Despite the pro-Confederacy feeling in southern Indiana, the Gaffs loaned the Forest Queen to the Union Army where it served for a time as General William Tecumseh Sherman's headquarters below Vicksburg, and later successfully ran the blockade there during the Civil War battle.  


Above are the Eclipse, left, and Diana, the latter involved in perhaps the longest, closest and most exciting contest of the steamboat era.  Challenged by the Baltic steamboat in March 1858 for a race 1,382 miles up the Mississippi River, the Diana kept pace but lost narrowly.  The resulting publicity helped thrust the Gaffs into the national limelight.



When Albert M. Root and Andrew J. Midler, buddies from Syracuse, New York, came to a booming Saginaw,  Michigan, about 1863, they started a liquor business aimed at slaking the thirst of the lumbermen thronging the city.  Their subsequent success provided them with the wealth to own and operate the largest fleet of steamboats plying the busy Saginaw River.  

As the liquor house of Root & Midler prospered, their wealth propelled them into shipping.  In 1872 the partners purchased the steamer L.G. Mason and the following year the Daniel Ball.  The partners’ final purchase was the Cora Locke, a side-wheeler used as an auxiliary ship on weekends when traveler demand was heavy.   As a result of their fleet, Root and Midler largely controlled the passenger business between Saginaw and Bay City, a monopoly the firm succeeded in maintaining for fifteen years.  Over time the they rebuilt entirely the L.G. Mason.  It was said to emerge “as fresh as a daisy” and remained a favorite river craft for many years, setting a record for Saginaw River trips.  

Not everything on the waters went well for the partners.  In October 1876 the Daniel Ball caught fire while on the way down river and was run ashore.  The passengers escaped unhurt but the aging craft burned to the water’s edge and sank, a total lost.  Undaunted, Root and Midler commissioned a new steamer from a Saginaw shipyard, shown below.  Launched in 1877, the ship was christened the Wellington R. Burt.   A side-wheeler weighing in a 252 tons, the Burt, shown here, was licensed to carry 500 people. 


Although the Wellington R. Burt, left, was said to be “a well patronized and popular boat” on the Saginaw River, it was the occasion of Root & Midler Co. being sued in 1885.  Apparently the custom of passengers was to jump on the boat as it approached the dock.  When a 48-year old Ms. Clinton made her jump to the gangway, she fell, broke her leg and sued the steamboat owners for negligence, asking damages.  After a lower court dismissed the suit, she appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court.  That body ruled in her favor, indicating that the ship’s officers had not taken reasonable precautions against “an obvious frequent danger.”  

Charles Rebstock of St. Louis was one of the Midwest’s most successful whiskey merchants, with customers in a multitude of states.  He merchandised his whiskey through a series of trade cards -- some of them shown here -- that are both amusing and puzzling. Particularly opaque is one showing two young women examining the head of a man contemplating a beached and presumably wrecked steamboat. 


That image may seem less strange when we understand that Rebstock in 1880 had commissioned a Mississippi steamboat be built in St. Louis with his name attached. This packet was to carry his goods and salesmen to the lower Mississippi and its tributaries.  The venture apparently proved unprofitable and three years later he sold the boat at a loss.  It later burned and was junked. The figure represented on the card looks a great deal like Rebstock himself.  My interpretation is that the whiskey man is having his head examined about his disastrous venture into steamships.

Note:  More complete biographies of each of these whiskey men may be found on this blog:  Amiron Cole, February 1, 2019;  Gaff Bros., July 8, 2018; Root & Midler, February 14, 2018, and Charles Rebstock, September 6, 2011.















Sunday, April 7, 2019

Billy Wood and Death by Fly Paper


Foreword:  Given the easy access to strong drink, I find it somewhat surprising that of the some 680 whiskey men I have profiled, only two definitely have been identified as becoming alcoholics.The saloonkeeper whose short biography appears below is one of them.  In his case, the outcome was tragic in the extreme.

William H. “Billy” Wood was well-known and for a time well-respected in Eureka, Utah, a pioneer settlement that grew from a mining camp to become the largest city and the center of commerce for an entire region. Billy Wood contributed to that development as well being a popular saloonkeeper whose Oxford Resort, according to press reports: “…Had the best business in town.”

Billy was born about 1866 in Pleton, Ontario, Canada, the son of David and Deberiah (Welbank) Wood.  His early life, education and immigration into the United States have gone unrecorded. By his early twenties he was working in the general merchandise and hotel business in Ogalalla, Nebraska.  Located in western part of the state, Ogalalla had been a stop on the Pony Express and later famous as a terminus for cattle drives from Texas to the Union Pacific railhead located there.  Ogalalla’s main street, shown here, has been reconstructed to reflect its early history.


In 1892 Wood pulled up stakes in Nebraska and likely boarding a Union Pacific train traveled west to Ogden, Utah, then trekked the 100 miles south to Eureka.  He arrived the year the city incorporated.  Why he chose Eureka is unclear.  As it is shown above in a colorized photo from its early days, the town was just one street of ramshackle buildings.   As mining production increased, however, Eureka’s population grew, triggering a commercial and residential building boom.  Wood’s early days in Eureka go unrecorded but the assumption is that he was running a saloon.

Disaster hit the town in 1893 in the shape of a fire that burned out most of Main Street.  Fearing a repeat, elected officials decreed that any new buildings had to be constructed of brick or cement block. Wood-framed structures were to be covered with iron-clad sheeting.  Townsfolk quickly began to rebuild.  Among those leaping into action was Billy Wood.  By this time the Canadian immigrant had achieved some wealth.  He pitched in by spending $25,000 (equivalent to $550,000 today) to construct a block of storefronts.  They can be seen in this 1890s photo of Eureka’s Main Street, identified by the awning at right.  

As part of his complex Wood opened an establishment of 4,000 square feet he called “The Oxford Resort.” The letterhead shown here provides clues to his operation.  Billy was running a saloon and cafe as well as selling liquor and cigars at retail.  The reference to private club rooms suggests on-premises gambling and possibly sexual activity.  

The emphasis on A.B.C. beer indicates his was a “tied establishment,” reaping extra profits by featuring only the advertised brew from St. Louis.  Wood’s place became the most popular drinking establishment in Eureka.  A genial personality was a prerequisite for a successful publican.  Billy had that “in spades” as well as a reputation as a “sporting man,” willing to bet on almost anything.

His business was aided by his active membership in the Ancient Order of United Workman (AOUW), a fraternal organization dedicated to improving the working conditions of its members which had established a highly popular insurance fund. In 1893 an amendment to the general laws of the organization mandated: "Any member of the order who shall after August 1, 1893, enter into any business of selling, by retail, intoxicating liquors as a beverage, shall be expelled from the order."  Since Wood had begun his liquor business shortly before that date it would appear that he continued to be in AOUW’s good graces.

By this time Billy had married, fathered two daughters, and gradually, as his obituary put it, developed “an uncontrollable appetite for alcohol.”  Recognizing the strains his drinking was putting on his marriage and business, Woods twice put himself into the hands of the Keeley Institute, a nationwide chain of 200 clinics that claimed to offer a “scientific” cure for alcoholism.  Despite glowing testimonials from former patients, the medical profession was skeptical.  Keeley treatments clearly did Billy little good.  In the Fall of 1899, returning from a “Keeley Cure” on the West Coast, he resumed his drinking almost immediately and his wife made good on her promise to leave him unless he reformed.

Plunged into despair, Wood decided on a desperate way out.  According to his obituary in the Salt Lake Tribune of September 22, 1899, he soaked strips of flypaper in water, knowing that they contained arsenic.  Then he drank the water.  Death by arsenic poisoning is not an easy way to commit suicide.  Symptoms begin with headaches, severe diarrhea, and drowsiness.  When the poisoning becomes acute, symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting blood, muscle cramps, stomach pain and convulsions.  The final result of arsenic poisoning is coma and death.  Wood’s suicide occurred when he was only 33 years old.

With his funeral arrangements and cortege organized by his fraternal brothers in the AOUW, Wood’s body was carried to the Eureka Cemetery and interred there.  Among the mourners were his widow, identified as proprietress of the Oxford rooming-house, and his daughters.  Billy’s saloon then fell into other hands, operating until the onset of Utah’s statewide prohibition in 1917.  Subsequently the building, as shown below, was allowed to fall into disuse.

Restored to some extent in recent years the building now bears a plaque that was paid for and placed there in 1999 by Eureka residents.  Shown here, It reads:  OXFORD RESORT — Built in 1893 as a saloon.  In the 20th Century much fun was had in this building.”   In the light of the tragic history of the man who created the Oxford Resort, that last sentence seems highly ironic.

Notes:  Although the information for this post was drawn from a number of documents, the principal source was the obituary of Wood that appeared in the September 22 issue of the Salt Lake Tribune, published the day after the saloonkeeper’s death.




















Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Was Fred Hipsh Bad at Judging People — Or Just Bad?


Frederick “Fred” Hipsh, a Hungarian immigrant who spent most of his working life in New York City in the whiskey trade, seemingly was plagued with bad judgment in selecting business associates and even his spouse.  Questions remain, however, about whether Hipsh himself always walked the straight and narrow.

Hipsh was born in Lagos, Hungary, in August 1867.  His early life has gone unrecorded but at the age of 22 in 1893 he immigrated to the United States, landing at New York City and making it his home.  There he appears to have been employed by a liquor house where he learned the ins and outs of the whiskey business, eventually striking out on his own in the Big Apple as a “distiller’s agent.”  The duties of agents essentially were three: 1) to represent distillers or whiskey rectifiers in a specific market, 2) to solicit and take orders for the sale of spirits produced by their clients, and 3) to conduct promotional events, including tastings.


The Hungarian immigrant appears to have met with some success.  Among his clients he counted the McBrayer Distillery of Lawrenceberg, Kentucky, a brand with a national reputation for quality.  William Harrison McBrayer, called Judge McBrayer for much of his life, is credited with being among the handful of Kentucky distillers who raised the quality and image of the state’s whiskey to international renown.  Landing that account was huge for Hipsh — and likely profitable.

Hipsh began to branch out.  In October 1903 he wrote the editor of the Wine & Spirits Bulletin announcing that he had bought the “Old York Distillery” in Louisville, Kentucky and “will conduct the business as heretofore under the same name and style.”  Shown here a label for “Elkridge Special Whiskey” which is purported to be a blend of old straight whiskies from Old York Distilleries. My research, however, has failed to find any such distillery in Louisville or anywhere else in America.

The appearance of owning a Kentucky distillery had its benefits.  As was common in those days of loose security regulations, it allowed the sale of bond certificates for whiskey supposed to be stored in an Old York warehouse in Louisville.  In 1904 a Los Angeles saloonkeeper bought an interest in twenty barrels of whiskey, paying $101 (more than $2,200 today) from a man who said he represented Hipsh.  When the certificates proved fraudulent, the seller, who identified himself as H. Hiller (an assumed name) was arrested and caught with dozens of Old York certificates in his possession.  An example of a certificate is below:


In New York Hipsh’s reaction to the arrest was odd. Rather than responding strongly to the frauds committed in his name, Hipsh, in effect, refused to press charges.  According to newspaper reports, in a telegram to the Los Angeles Chief of Police, he explained that Old York was not a corporation and he was a sole proprietor.  Furthermore, he did not care to incur the expense of a transcontinental trip to prosecute Hiller.  The latter subsequently was arrested on separate felony charges and taken in handcuffs to San Francisco.

Fast forward to 1908.  Despite the situation that occurred on the West Coast, Hipsh continued to peddle certificates related to whiskey reputedly in a Kentucky warehouse.  He hired an agent named Alexander Ruberti to hawk them.  Ruberti sold some to a fellow Italian, Joseph Fiorello, who paid for them with promissory notes that Ruberti sent on to Hipsh.  It later was indicated that Fiorello was could neither read nor write English.  When he learned that the certificates apparently were fraudulent, he communicated with Hipsh, canceling his contract and demanding his notes back.  

By that time, however, Hipsh had passed the now worthless paper on to a third party who sued — not Hipsh or Ruberti — but Fiorello.  Hipsh was summoned into a New York Circuit Court before a judge and jury, not as a defendant, but to testify to whether Ruberti, indeed, was his agent.  The court judgment declared that Fiorello “had the undoubted right to rescind the contract for fraud.”  Yet the same jury found Hipsh “innocent in the transaction.” Ruberti was blamed but somehow not found liable.  The State Supreme Court later confirmed the verdict.  The individual holding Fiorello’s notes was left out in the cold. 


This court appearance was followed in 1909 by a suit Hipsh filed for $200,000 (more than $4 million today) against Theodore P. Shonts, one of New York’s richest and most powerful men.  The accusation made headlines in The New York Times and other newspapers.  The whiskey man charged that Shonts had alienated the affections of Mrs. Hipsh.  Fred had married a woman named Anna Lovell who was working as a stenographer when they met.  Desribed in news stories as “attractive,” Anna was 14 years younger than her husband. 

Shonts, president of a New York interborough transit company and an officer in a number of large railroads, shown here, said it was an case of mistaken identity and that the real culprit was a “double.”  In Reno, Nevada, at the posh Riverside Hotel, apparently in town for a “quicky” divorce from Hipsh, Anna acknowledged to a reporter that she knew Shonts, saying: “He has always treated me as a gentleman should treat a woman.”  But she denied they were having an affair.

As evidence, Frederick had a telegram for Anna that he had intercepted and identified as being from Shonts, asking to meet his wife surreptitiously .  She unsuccessfully had tried to snatch the message from his hand and when accused had packed her bags for Reno.  The couple eventually divorced, a settlement with Shonts apparently was reached, and the railroad magnet, who clearly had an unhappy marriage and a roving eye, went on to other women and scandals.  Hipsh, now single, was found living at New York’s Marseilles Hotel, shown left.

Hipsh's days in court, however, were not over.  In 1913 the Roualet Wine Company of Hammondsport, New York, took him to court apparently to recover funds owed.  He appealed to the State Supreme Court which unanimously affirmed a lower court decision, added $10 in court costs, and ordered him to pay up. 

That was in January.  By June of the same year Hipsh was dead at the age of 46.  He was in Pittsburgh at the time, his occupation listed as traveling salesman.  Cause of death was given as “acute indigestion.”  For reasons unclear, despite his long residence in New York City, Hipsh’s body was conveyed to Chicago for burial.

The question remains:  Was Hipsh’s major flaw his inability to select honest business associates and a good wife or was something else at work here?  Given his claim to own a distillery that evidently did not exist, his unwillingness to prosecute “Hiller,” the proliferation of apparently worthless whiskey certificates, and the excessive recompense sought against Shonts for his failed marriage, it would appear that Frederick Hipsh had more than a little larceny in his heart.














Friday, March 29, 2019

Yukon Bill McPhee: Gold and a Whiskey Chaser


The contention that “every bottle has a story,” is fully borne out by the small ceramic flask shown here.  It tells the story of W. H. (“Bill”) McPhee, a figure in the frozen North whose role in the Yukon Gold Rush was not to moil for the shiny stuff in the earth but to get it in payment for whiskey in his saloons.  Said the Dawson Yukon Sun:  “The memory of man runneth not back to the time when Bill McPhee first came to the Yukon.”

According to his response to the 1910 census, McPhee was born in Eastern Canada in 1841 of Scottish ancestry.  Shown here, he came to the United States in 1870 and eventually became a citizen, although equally at home in Canada.  Of his early years, information is scant.  He appears to have had some early employment in the whiskey trade, likely spending a period employed in a saloon.  He is shown here in middle age.

Although he indicated he had arrived in the Canadian Yukon in 1888, McPhee first shows up in the public record six years later running a drinking establishment in “Forty Mile,” accounted as the oldest town in Canada’s Yukon.  It was established in 1886 at the confluence of the Yukon and Fortymile Rivers by prospectors in search of gold after a strike had been made on the Fortymile. With a population of about 600 by 1894, the town, shown below, boasted two general stores, a lending library, billiard room, ten saloons, two restaurants, a theatre, an opera house, a watchmaker, and several distilleries.


After McPhee with two partners opened a saloon in Forty Mile he was soon active in public affairs in the town and became one of the founders of the Yukon Order of Pioneers.  This group was formed in 1894 by members of the community to bring an element of “law and order” to Forty Mile where claim-jumping and violence were all too common — and there was no local police force.  At the first meeting of the Order the popular Bill was elected treasurer.  Shown here is a photo of the Pioneers against a backdrop of log buildings.  McPhee is second from left, seated in the first row.

It was at McPhee’s saloon, late in the afternoon of August 17, 1896, that George Carmacks made his initial announcement that he had discovered gold on a tributary of the Yukon River forty miles to the south.  Although townspeople at first were skeptical, Carmacks pulled out a shotgun shell full of the metal plus a nugget the size of a dime.   He had found a huge quantity of gold, describing seeing raw gold in pieces of bedrock “laying thick between the flaky slabs, like cheese sandwiches.”  and had marked out four claims along the creek for himself and two companions.  The next day he registered them at at the nearest police post and news spread rapidly from there to other mining camps in the Yukon River valley.  The Klondike Gold Rush was on.


The denizens of Forty Mile did not wait.  Many of them set out immediately that evening to the site.  By the next morning Forty Mile was a ghost town as residents used every available pole boat to get upriver.  Among those quick to move was Clarence Berry, one of McPhee’s bartenders.  Berry, a muscular giant, was a California fruit farmer caught in the depression of the 1890s who had come North in 1894.  With little initial luck as a prospector, he had gone to work in the saloon.

When opportunity beckoned, Berry did not hesitate and with partners staked claims along what became known as Bonanza Creek.  By the following summer he and his buddies were millionaires.   While waiting for the rivers to thaw so he could ship out to civilization and spend money,  Berry reportedly placed an coal-oil can full of gold and a bottle of whiskey in front of his cabin with a sign reading “Help Yourself.”

McPhee himself was not slow in realizing the need to move his saloon to what was becoming known as Dawson City.   There he opened a saloon he called the “Pioneer.”  Said one observer: “In a city of greenhorns like Dawson, McPhee was a genuine oldtimer and his watering hole was one of the most popular in town.”  According to author Michael Gates, however:  “McPhee was not universally admired, because he was reputed to encourage men to drink themselves into insolvency.”

In the spring of 1898, Dawson’s population ballooned to 30,000 as prospectors arrived from all over the globe. As shown here, the main drag, Front Street, was lined with hastily built frame buildings and warehouses, together with log cabins and tents spreading out across the settlement. In Spring, the unpaved streets were churned into thick mud and in Summer the settlement reeked of human waste and was plagued by flies and mosquitoes.

Despite the squalor, the quantities of gold coming through Dawson triggered inflationary prices for land, food and other hard to get commodities.  At his Pioneer Saloon, McPhee was benefiting from the lavish spending among the wealthier prospectors.  Establishments like McPhee’s typically were open around the clock.  Whiskey, much of it of dubious quality, was the standard drink.  Gambling was popular, with major saloons each running their own gaming rooms and taking a generous cut for the house.

As had occurred earlier at Forty Mile, the Yukon Gold Rush slackened after 1898.  Most land with potential for gold had been claimed.  Many of the prospectors arriving in Dawson City could not make a living and left for home.  Most important were gold strikes elsewhere in Canada and Alaska.  A stampede of prospectors left Dawson City for other locations.  Among the destinations was a former trading post on the south bank of the Chena River in Alaska where gold was discovered about 1902.  Thousands of people flocked to the area in search of their fortune, creating a boom town the residents called Fairbanks.  The main street is shown here in the 1900s.  

McPhee was relatively quick to see that the local boom economy was finished and as he had done before at Forty Mile, he left Dawson City and in 1904 moved down the Yukon River to Fairbanks.  There he established the Washington Saloon at the corner of First and Lacy Streets, an establishment the locals called “McPhee’s Place.”  The proprietor’s genial personality and reputation as an “old pioneer,” combined with his generosity in handing out tokens good for 25 cents in trade.  He made the Washington Saloon one of the most popular in Fairbanks.  


Two years after opening, however, McPhee’s place was consumed in the Great Fairbanks Fire of May 26, 1906.  Shown here, the conflagration destroyed most of the town, which was quickly rebuilt.  McPhee had men working the day after the flames ended constructing a new one story saloon and store building.  Remembering the kindness the proprietor had shown him by hiring him when he was down on his luck, the millionaire Clarence Berry quickly had wired McPhee all the money he needed to rebuild. 


McPhee’s saloon was famous for harboring his pet moose that reputedly had a habit of eating potatoes and stale bread and chasing it down with beer — causing considerable havoc when the moose got drunk. According to the local press: “Since the mayor’s repeated demands to remove the moose from the Saloon were refused, he drew up an ordinance prohibiting moose on the city sidewalks—so that the large ungulate couldn’t lawfully enter the bar.”  With McPhee’s permission, the moose was killed and patrons ate it.  

In 1909 controversy arose about a hiker’s claim to have climbed Denali (Mt. McKinley).  To prove whether the story was true or not, McPhee who had been drinking beer, offered $500 to anyone who would make the climb, claiming, according to a New York Times story, that “no living man could make the ascent.” He gathered two other sponsors and each contributed $500 (the total worth over $37,000 today.)  A group of four prospectors took him up on the challenge.


The prospectors subsequently claimed to have reached the summit after climbing more than 8,000 feet of steep snow and ice, then back down again— all in a single day in 1910.  Lugging a 25-pound, 14-foot flagpole to mark their success, they claimed to have mastered North America’s highest peak using sheet metal crampons, coal shovels, hatchets, and alpenstocks to balance their way up the mountain.  Subsequently the earlier claim and that of the prospectors were proven spurious.  The Denali was first conquered in 1913 by professional mountaineers.

Meanwhile, McPhee’s saloon business continued brisk as Fairbanks advanced from a camp to a settlement to a town and then to the largest city in Alaska.  The flask that opens this post is an indication of the proprietor’s prosperity.  It was made in Germany by the Schafer & Vader, a German company known for their humorous small ceramic items.  Founded in 1890, the factory was located in Volkstedt-Rudolstadt.  Shown here front and back, this was an expensive giveaway item for McPhee.  The ceramics themselves were not cheap.  Then they had to be brought by ship from Germany all the way to the American Yukon, likely after rounding the tip of Latin America.  Upon arrival, McPhee was obliged to fill them with whiskey before presenting them to favored customers. 

Gestures like this made Bill McPhee a legendary figure, known well to the power brokers in Alaska.  He is shown here posing with Tom Megowan, his good friend and a political insider.  There is no evidence McPhee ever married or had children to assist him as he aged.  At 72 years old in 1913 he was still running the Washington Saloon and continued, despite declining eyesight, until closed by National Prohibition.  By then he was almost blind and about 1921 left Fairbanks for San Francisco and better care.  Then McPhee fades into history and I have been unable to find his burial place.

No one who ever knew him ever forgot Bill McPhee,” according to one author.  Today, however, no one who ever knew him is still living.  Yet through the iconic ceramic flask McPhee issued we can learn the story of this resourceful Yukon pioneer who preferred pouring golden liquid over a bar to laboriously unearthing the shiny stuff in the frozen tundra.

Notes:  While this post was composed from many sources, a key one was an item entitled “A Most Popular Resort:  Bill McPhee’s Saloon” by Terrence Cole from “A Walking Tour of Fairbanks” published by the Tanana-Yukon Historical Society.

Addendum:  This is to alert both followers of this blog and others that I have a new website involving whiskey.  It is a compilation of more than thirty vignettes about Old West saloons and saloonkeepers.  Outlaws, gunslingers, and shootings abound.  This new blog can be accessed at wet enterprise: select saloons of the old west@blogspot.com. If this new site proves popular, other compilations under the “wet enterprise” heading may be forthcoming.