The Railroad Coffeehouse, across from the First and Last Chance Saloon on Fifth, had one of the better gimmicks. During the ’80s, it was illegal to sell liquor after midnight. Shortly before the clock struck 12:00, the Coffeehouse stopped serving alcohol and its specialty, free ham and eggs. The bartender pulled a white curtain over the sideboard. Closing time? Nope. Customers moseyed up to the long-legged stools at the high counter and ordered “Coffee Royal”: nasty “Stingaree lightning” poured into a mug of coffee and sold for 15 cents.
As we move up the west side of Fifth, notice that most of the bars have painted windows, usually black, and don’t have swinging doors. They have screen doors to protect customers from San Diego’s infernal fleas. (In 1890, when the Women’s Christian Temperance Union wanted to curtail activity in the bars, they told the city to scrape paint off all the windows and remove the screen doors.)
Something else: just as Chinatown was more than opium dens and fan-tan houses, the Stingaree was never merely brothels and saloons, hopheads and blackout alcoholics. The district, which in 1911 extended from First Street east to Eleventh and from Market south to the waterline, had businesses, livery stables, “respectable” saloons and hotels. Alonzo Horton had an office at Sixth near J.
The Stingaree was also home to most of San Diego’s working class, of various races and nationalities. If you drew a diagonal line northwest from Fifth and K to First and Market, almost everything left of the line was Chinatown, which didn’t merge with the Stingaree until around 1900.
Lower Fifth in 1887 hit you with fiddles and banjos strumming ribald songs, and plunked pianos. Booze-soaked voices croaked a song’s lyrics, sometimes on — more often off — the beat. Every open door wafted smells your way: “garlic, swill, and fried meats,” wrote a Union reporter (who grew a beard to infiltrate the district in November, 1887). “And the eye is pained to see one, two, or perhaps three men on each corner, so intoxicated that they can barely stand.”
Up ahead, that two-story building at 452 Fifth? Pete Cassidy’s. Some saloons used music and the magnet of clinking glasses to create curb appeal. Others projected an upscale mien. The Green Light, on Third between I and J, tried to resemble an English inn. From its balcony you looked down on a pleasant courtyard and a fountain glittering with goldfish. Cassidy’s grimy, red-brick walls gave an opposite effect.
On March 13, 1887, police arrested Cassidy for rolling a drunk. “A bruiser by trade and rough by reputation,” wrote the Union, Cassidy “sponged” 75 cents from his comatose target — and got off with just a hand-slap.
Since his bar stood near the north end of the Stingaree, workers on their way home used to stop by for a cold one. Come payday, Cassidy over-served them with enough “Tanglefoot” to knock them flat and nab their cash.
If sailors made it this far up Fifth, they’d probably spent — or lost — a portion of their earnings by now. But Cassidy (and several of the local madams) found a way to make them lucrative. During the 1890s, sailors became deserters if they were Absent Without Leave for ten days. The Navy paid $50 for each man recovered. Cassidy had a knack — a gift, some wisecracked — for returning AWOL bluejackets on day 11 at the dawn’s early light.
The Stingaree had fast-food eateries, known in those days as “quick and dirties.” But next to Cassidy’s, at the southwest corner of Fifth and I, the Paris Chop House stood apart. The one-story frame structure had a long crescent-shaped table similar to a bar. Patrons sat on high stools. Behind the table, the cook worked a large woodstove. He always kept coffee brewing in a pot and mutton chops frying in a pan. Why? The smoke and sizzling grease chased flies away, and the aroma cruising up and down Fifth was the best advertising in town — if you didn’t count the price, that is: a meal cost 25 cents.
Up the west side of Fifth, at 438, McInerney’s almost rivaled Pete Cassidy’s for thievery. This saloon, one of the first south of H (now Market) specialized not in rolling laborers or sailors, but in robbing “greenies” — people new to the district, or new to San Diego. “Steerers,” men who worked for McInerney’s, walked the streets looking for a well-heeled greeny to befriend and steer to the saloon for a taste.
The steerer slapped a silver dollar on the bar and ordered two beers. The silver meant “Got one.” The steerer then sat his greeny at a table. The bartender made sure the greeny’s glass brimmed with fresh foam.
A reporter for the Union watched the sting in 1887: “Half an hour later the [greeny] reeled through the crowd in the saloon to the yard in the rear. The [steerer] followed, but after a few minutes he returned and with a knowing wink to the barkeeper that said another ‘drunk’ had been ‘rolled.’ ”
“Rolling” happened so often in the Stingaree it became part of the landscape. If a drunk snoozed on his back, the perp — or sometimes just a passerby — would kick him over and pull his pockets inside-out.
Police Chief Keno Wilson fired two of his better officers when he heard they were regular “rollers.”
For decades, the powers that be believed that, by having the Stingaree where it was, they could secrete sin. Hindsight shows that, as Ray Brandes points out, some women in the reform movement “knew that their husbands were profiting from the red-light district or were silent partners in ownership of the land.”
One unwritten rule: locals called H Street the “deadline.” Upstanding citizens, women in particular, never went south of Market; pimps and sporting ladies could get arrested if they went north. But what if a Stingaree impresario crossed the line?
Wallace Leach came to San Diego in 1873 with a degree from Harvard Law and a flair for the dramatic. In court, he argued for the defense and dressed more for Paris than New Town San Diego. “He was uniformly successful in winning his cases,” writes Herbert C. Hensley, “and his fellow townsmen generally admired his gifts while preferring that their women-folks have little to do with him.”