Let’s take a walk through time. We’re at the southwest corner of Fifth and K, part of the Gaslamp Quarter.
At night, lines form under bright lights at popular clubs and restaurants. Between 1875 and 1912, however, this intersection was the gateway to San Diego’s red-light district, the Stingaree, where visitors kept to the shadows. Also known as “Stingaree Town,” the area got its name from a mean, ray-like fish with a long, poisonous tail. Stingarees could zap you so good that fishermen used to catch them, chop off the barbed tail, and toss the tail and body back.
If you sailed to San Diego before, say, 1900, your steamer docked at a long wharf at the foot of Fifth. To reach downtown, you had to wend through blocks of saloons, parlor houses, dance halls, and brothels, not to mention the red-light remora: roving gangs and steel-eyed land sharks after your money through means both devious and swift. The district stung worse than any fish.
We’ll walk the old Stingaree up Fifth to Island, go west on Island to Second, then north to Market. But first, a warning: sacks of goods in neat, ten-deep piles on loading docks may block our view east. But along the L Street tidelands to the foot of Eleventh, near the old Gumbo Slough, shanties and wooden cabins teeter on stilts above the water. That’s Pirates Cove, where people live on “bread and barracuda.” The Stingaree can be dangerous. They say the guano poachers, the longshoremen (who shovel sand ballast for a dollar a day), and other denizens of the cove can make a night at the Stingaree look like a lemonade soiree. Amble down these unlit dirt tracks, laced with smashed bottles and wee hours’ vomit, and you may never amble back.
Now let’s take that walk.
Ever since Alonzo Horton built a $50,000 wharf at the foot of Fifth in 1869, there have been saloons at Fifth and K. In the early 1870s, Johnny Petty’s Last Chance, a rough-hewn long bar with few amenities, stood at the southwest corner. The whiskey tasted like sweetened turpentine. Those of a more health-conscious bent could chase shots with water drawn from local wells. But a glass of that stuff was browner than the liquor. “You could drink it,” writes Don M. Stewart, “but you would rather not.”
Tillman Augustus “Till” Burnes learned the saloon business tending bar at the Last Chance, which was usually a sailor’s final stop before boarding ship. Burnes had been an engraver in San Francisco, a rancher, and a hunter. In San Diego he added to these a reputation as one tough hombre. If customers got rambunctious, Till did the bouncing.
A burly, brown-eyed, five-foot-six-inch Irishman — the nub of a stogie jutting from stained teeth — Burnes bought the Last Chance in 1875 and converted it into a pre-Vegas spectacle: The Phoenix, a bar and a museum of stuffed animals in glass cabinets along one wall. Outside, a pepper tree drooped over a menagerie: monkeys, quail, rabbits, a 16-inch Gila monster. For a long, sad week, Burnes nursed an infirm baby leopard seal someone found at Ballast Point. When the poor pup died of consumption, the clientele drowned their sorrows with gallons of nickel beers.
Burnes swore the stuffed bat hung overhead was a vampire. The bat did draw attention, especially that two-foot wingspan. So did the anteater. But Bruin, the live brown bear in the large steel cage outside, was the main draw. Originally Burnes chained Bruin to a post. Then Frank Nelson tried to feed him and lost a finger. Thus the cage. Burnes swore Bruin was friendly, even liked the occasional nip, but he warned customers to keep their distance, especially if they had had one too many. The cage bars were far apart, and Bruin could as easily lick your face as chomp off a chunk.
An ad in the San Diego Evening World (August 28, 1875) says that the Phoenix rented out boats and furnished music for parties. Burnes ran an aerial messenger service. He had so many carrier pigeons, and they made such a mess, that the owners of a Chinese store behind the Phoenix tried to shoot them down.
Inside the saloon, above the blue swirl of tobacco smoke, hung a second haze. The ceiling looked like a smoldering fire, but wasn’t. Clouds of cobwebs, a foot thick in places, swirled under the beams. Burnes, who got the idea from Cobweb Hall, a “sailor curio tavern” on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, imported hordes of spiders and ordered them to spin to their heart’s content.
The story goes — many tales of the Stingaree are probably as much “story” as “history” — Burnes owned a stage line in Baja. In the mid-1880s, when he went south to inspect the operation, he hired a bartender vacationing in San Diego to watch the Phoenix.
Burnes came back. The ceiling was clean. The bartender, proud of his achievement, had broomed down all the cobwebs. “By God,” said Burnes, “you’ve undone the work of ten years!”
Burnes renamed his bar the First and Last Chance Saloon, and for decades it was the portal to the Stingaree. He later owned other groggeries in the district, including the most vile of them all, the Old Tub of Blood at Third and I.
From the boom years of the 1880s through the first decade of the 20th century, the Stingaree had so many saloons that they needed gimmicks to stand out. Madam Mamie Goldstein’s The Turf, a bar with an upstairs “parlor house” at the northeast corner of Fourth and J, offered culture. Goldstein hired the organist from the German Lutheran church to play familiar hymns exuding moral uplift. In the early years of the 20th century, Jim Flynn tended the Dewey bar at Third and I. A mustachioed fireman from Pueblo, Flynn once beat a young Jack Dempsey in the ring. Only the very drunk, or bone stupid, tried to take the measure of the man.