The history of Johnny Heinold’s Saloon

J.M. Heinold

J.M. Heinold

OPened june 1st, 1884….

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by johnny Heinold as J. M. Heinold’s Saloon, this National Historic Landmark looked much back then as she does today. She was built between 1871 and 1875 at the foot of Webster Street from the timbers of the Umatilla, an abandoned stern-wheel paddle steamer that had seen service in 1858 during the Fraser River Gold Rush, and on the Sacramento River in the 1860s. With $100 and the aid of a ship’s carpenter, Johnny Heinold turned the building into a saloon where seafaring and waterfront men could feel at ease.

Charmian London wrote that Johnny adopted the “two-faced pseudonym” First & Last Chance “by reason of its accommodating relation to comers as well as goers” -pedestrians across the drawbridge to Alameda, and passengers from the ferries calling at the Oakland Municipal Wharf. As the years wore on, many servicemen left for overseas from the Port of Oakland, and the First & Last Chance tradition stuck. The name of the saloon was officially changed to Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon.

In the years since 1884, a number of writers, adventurers, politicians, and humble folk like you and me have enjoyed the ambiance and the history of this unique bit of Oakland. Just a few of the tales that can be told here follow.

There is a good reason for the Saloon being known as Jack London’s Rendezvous. At age 15, Jack London purchased his first sailboat, the Razzle Dazzle, from French Frank here in Johnny’s Saloon. At 17, Jack told Johnny of his ambition to go to the University of California and become a writer, and Johnny lent Jack the money for tuition, although Jack never got beyond his first semester. Jack developed his thirst for adventure while listening to the stories of sailors and stevedores at the Saloon. Johnny Heinold and the First & Last Chance Saloon appear multiple times in London’s autobiographical novel John Barleycorn. The Saloon was where Jack met Alexander McLean, known for such cruelty at sea that his ship was nicknamed The Hell Ship. McLean became a model for London’s Wolf Larsen in The Sea Wolf. In addition to The Razzle Dazzle, Jack sealed the deals for his later ships, the Roamer and the Snark, with a drink in the saloon.

The Saloon uses its original gas lighting and is reputed to be one of the last commercial operations in California that still uses them. The pot-bellied stove is the original and was used as the only source of heat until 1989.

While it may look like the ceiling was burned in a fire, the darkness is due to the creosote coming out of the old wood, and the smoke from the stove, lanterns, and, until January 1st, 1998, cigars and cigarettes. The tables, stove, movie machine, music box, old bar and rail (notice its worn through), clock, and several other items behind the bar are originals. Pictures of the Saloon in the 1890s and later hang on the photo wall.

In 1890, a passenger train plunged off the open drawbridge into the San Antonio Estuary, and the Saloon became a make-shift hospital and morgue. As victims of the disaster filled the Saloon, Johny cried out “Sell no more whisky! Take everything in the house if it will save a life, or make even one poor woman die easier.” Johnny kept the Saloon open during Prohibition, selling soda pop and cigars. When asked why he didn’t sell alcohol, he replied that if his son could fight to protect the Constitution, he could abide by it, and that it wouldn’t look right for Jack London’s good friend to be called a bootlegger. Johnny’s son, George Heinold, was a decorated veteran of WWI, and received the French Croix De Guerre for taking out a nest of German machine gunners in 1918. His medals are on the photo wall.

Johnny operated the Saloon until his death in 1933, when his son George took over. When George passed in 1970, his widow, Margaret Heinold, ran the Saloon. in 1984, Margaret sold the business to Carol Brookman, who promised to maintain its appearance as close to the original as possible. It is Carol’s love for the history and traditions of the Saloon that makes it possible for all of us to partake of a social drink while soaking in a little history at the First and Last Chance Saloon!

Cheers!