Not Passing the Bar

CAROLE REYNOLDS / THE PIONEER

Carole Reynolds

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The Oldest, Quirkiest Bar In the Bay Area

Heinold’s cluttered bar features a picture of Jack London above its old-fashioned register, the man whose name carries on in the square where the historic watering hole is located.

At the foot of Webster Street in Oakland, and at the very edge of Jack London Square, it was somewhat disconcerting to see two little piles of wood.

Crossing The Embarcadero, these woodpiles turned into buildings, sort of.

The one on the right became a sagging log cabin with a nice grassy lawn on its roof. Its plaque identified it as being the cabin once occupied by Jack London during his sojourn in the Klondike.

How it came to be in Oakland is a tale in itself, but for another time.

The building on the left identified itself much more loudly as Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, also appropriately known as Jack London’s Rendezvous.

The building, erected in 1880 from the timbers of an old whaling ship, served for three years as a bunkhouse for men who worked the oyster beds off the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay.

Young Johnny Heinold purchased the building for $100, with the help of a ship’s carpenter, converted it, and on June 1, 1883, opened J.M. Heinold’s Saloon. This quickly became a favorite watering hole for seafarers and other waterfront workers to pass away the time in comfort and ease of company.

The structure standing today is not much altered from its century plus vigil on the waterfront, unless one takes into account the floor and the bar in the front part of the establishment tilts downward from the entrance to about midway of the room at an estimated 20 to 30 degree angle.

If seated at the bar, customers must keep a close eye, or a preventive grip, on their beverages.

This particular oddity, as opposed to the plethora of other oddities collected there, was the result of Mother Nature. Apparently, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake settled the pilings underneath in the mud. Subsequent efforts to correct the damage proved unsuccessful. The clock on the wall, next to the old potbellied stove stopped at precisely 5:18 to commemorate the occasion

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This stove, installed in 1880, was the only source of heat at Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon until 1989.

The bar and tables one sees today are the same ones at which a young Jack London studied as a 1schoolboy. He would come back to this place, and his favorite table, to make notes for “The Sea Wolf” and “Call of the Wild.” It was while studying in this saloon that tales told by seafarers and stevedores would awaken a lust for adventure in young London.

Johnny Heinold and The First and Last Chance Saloon got seventeen references in London’s novel, John Barleycorn, according to the official history of the saloon. Additionally, it was here that London met Alexander McLean, who became the model for Wolf Larsen in The Sea Wolf.

Even the name, “Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon,” came about from an interesting bit of local history.

In the 1920’s, the Alameda Ferry docked adjacent to Heinold’s. Alameda was a dry city at the time, so Heinold’s literally was commuters’ first chance coming into Oakland, and the last chance before returning to Alameda to imbibe in a bit of alcohol. In successive years, many servicemen left for overseas from the Port of Oakland. The first and last tradition continued, so the name was officially changed to make good on the reality.

Currency from several countries and several more decades adorns the walls, much of it signed and dated by the men leaving for war. The idea being, upon their return, the price of the first drink awaited them. Tragically, many never returned.

“If a tourist or casual customer tries to leave his “branded” bill on the wall, the regulars will raise a hue and cry so fast they won’t know what hit ‘em,” said bar regular Bill Jansen.

“Skinny kids in baggy shorts, or tattooed women in tank tops cannot leave their money in the tradition of our war-bound fighting men,” he added.

Continually in business for 127 years, this is the only commercial operation in the state of California to still use its original gas lamps, and until 1989, the only source for heat was the original little potbellied stove. The ceiling and the accoutrement that covers it appeared to have been through the fire of Hades, but that strange coloring is a direct result of too many years at the mercy of a wood burning stove, gaslights and cigarette smoke.

There was too much in the place, on the walls, behind the bar, on the ceiling, even in the incongruous confines of the bathroom, (which somehow didn’t feel as if indoor plumbing belonged) for anyone to accurately paint a picture of in words.

From the original tables, now shimmed up to appear level, to the movie machine, music box, worn through bar rail, even the moth-eaten deer head behind the bar and the little stove against the back wall, this dizzying place reeks of history.

This is a history a person can touch, and smell. Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon was the place in the mind of the person who first said, “Boy, if these walls could talk.”
These walls do talk, in a way.

A sign next to the entrance eloquently observes: “He who drinks & drinks with grace, Is ever welcome in this place. He who drinks more than his share, is never welcome anywhere,” while a sign behind the bar requests, “Ladies, kindly do your soliciting discreetly.”

Johnny Heinold and his son George operated the bar for a combined total of 86 years, and George’s widow Margaret continued the family business until 1984, when on-site proprietor Carol Brookman took over with a promise to maintain its appearance as close to the original as possible.

It is Brookman’s love for the living history and traditions of the bar that allows her customers to relax and pass their time with the spirit of Jack London, and so many others who partook of Heinold’s warmth.