Monday, November 26, 2012

Main Plaza, 1885: Part I. The White Elephant Saloon

This is the first of many installments intended to paint a portrait of life in San Antonio in 1885.

Between the 1880s and 1920s, San Antonio cultivated the second-largest red light district in the United States, stretching from Main Plaza west to Frio Street. The most infamous establishment during this time was the White Elephant Saloon. More complex than a basic gambling den, the White Elephant embodied the many dichotomies of San Antonio, serving both the vagrant rounder and the affluent businessman. Despite standing as the largest gambling establishment in Texas, it was only open for less than two years. In 1885, the state of Texas passed a bill outlawing gambling, making it a felony. Many saloons and gaming houses, including the White Elephant, packed up and left town, changing San Antonio forever.

"The stranger on coming to San Antonio is usually told that the sights worth seeing are the Alamo, San Pedro Springs, the Missions and the garrison grounds, and invariably he is counselled not to think of departing until he has seen the Elephant."1

Figure 1: The White Elephant Saloon, 1883
The White Elephant Saloon opened its doors on August 7, 1883. The proprietors, Sam Berliner and Edward Fowler, selected a cramped lot at 315 W. Commerce Street, in between two department stores, along the north side of Main Plaza (see figure 2). Located just two doors down was Max Samuel's saloon, the Revolving Light; not far away from that was the infamous Vaudeville Theater, where Ben Thompson and King Fisher were killed in a shootout in March of 1884. The location of the Elephant indeed contributed to its success.

The Elephant's setting in Main Plaza, San Antonio's early commercial district, coupled with its proximity to city hall and the stock yards, provided the White Elephant with a healthy lunch crowd during the day. Its shear size, furnishings, and location made the Elephant the premier attraction at night. Main Plaza was arguably busier in the evening than during the day. Food vendors and Chili Queens operated their stands from dusk until dawn and were never without customer.

Scuffles, skirmishes, and shootings were commonplace along the north side of the plaza. In the 1880s, there were no less than sixteen saloons in the immediate area. Main Plaza was a dusty, hustling, bustling mess with the White Elephant Saloon as its rough and rowdy center. "It is, Perhaps, the largest place of its kind in the United States. At night its exterior is as bright as midday, made so by electric lights, while streaming out from within come dazzling beams of splendor projecting their rays completely across the spacious plaza."2 The White Elephant was likely the first saloon in San Antonio to utilize electric lighting. The San Antonio Electric Company had only been established the year previous. Electricity enhanced visibility in shadowy corridors, extended gaming time, and served as an oasis for customers yearning to escape San Antonio's dark and dusty streets.

Figure 2: Augustus Koch Map of Main Plaza, 1886
The bright lighting of the Elephant was complemented by its mahogany and marble interior. The floors were "tessellated with alternating black and white marble and would have made a fit floor for Solomon's temple."3 A mahogany cigar stand stood in the vestibule and the massive bar at the rear was crafted out of mahogany and redwood.

Above the bar, mahogany-framed mirrors reflected the eight billiard tables at the center of the room, "on which no cloth is permitted to be worn longer than six months."4 Adjacent to the bar, stood the restaurant and lunch counter (see figure 3). The menu offered the finest delicacies, including turtle soup, oysters, and champagne, all imported from outside the state. James French, then mayor of San Antonio, often frequented the lunch counter at the Elephant weekday afternoons, entertaining county judges, commissioners, and the like. "Both restaurant and lunch counter equal to any in the country. French cooking. Perfect attendance. Choicest of meats, game, oysters, fish, salads, and rarities."Berliner and Fowler intended to fashion the Elephant into an exotic spectacle, luring customers in with finery offered no where else in Texas.

"It is beyond doubt the finest and most convenient saloon south of Chicago, and San Antonians are in ecstasy about its beauty. The best liquors and the finest cigars in the city are obtainable at the White Elephant."Inside, Berliner and Fowler ran mostly billiards, faro, and poker. "Up the broad stairways are four elegant, comfortably furnished club rooms for gentlemen to while away their leisure."Outside, bookies took bets on horse races over at the "Old Fairgrounds" racetrack, later known as Riverside Park. Gamblers placed their bets and then a hack cart pulled around front and transported them to the racetrack southwest of town. The Blanchette hack line departed from Main Plaza every twenty minutes, with a livery located near the stockyards on Dolorosa.

Figure 3: The Lunch Counter at the White Elephant
"The White Elephant is doing such a trade in mixed drinks that it ordered a carload of straws." The Elephant was indeed rolling and business only increased as time past. Berliner and Fowler purchased six alligators and had them shipped from Florida by railcar. Presumably, the alligators simply hung out in a cage somewhere towards the back of the house. One could imagine how Berliner and Fowler invented different ways to use the alligators for gambling.

"The White Elephant Saloon, which everyone thought was too grand for San Antonio, is still booming, and is even doing better than its proprietors expected."9 Many organizations used the Elephant as a venue for gatherings and parties. Baseball clubs frequently held post-game celebrations at the White Elephant. Prior to the city organizing the longstanding San Antonio Missionaries baseball team, the San Antonio Blue Stockings reigned supreme. The Blue Stockings crossed bats with the likes of the Austin Red Stockings, the Dallas Brown Stockings, or the Houston Nationals at the San Pedro Park baseball diamond. Following the games, the teams shook hands and then shared drinks with their opponents at the White Elephant Saloon. Inspired by the Elephant's success, many of these other burgeoning cities erected cheap copies. White Elephant Saloons sprouted up in Waco, Lampasass, San Angelo, and Fort Worth; none of which compared to the original.

Figure 4: Drink Token from the White Elephant
Sadly, the end of the White Elephant occurred even before it began. In April 1883, five months before the White Elephant opened, City Alderman Joseph Dwyer motioned the submission of an ordinance to define and punish gambling in the city. The motion was briefly debated in city council because state law already prohibited gambling, but the law was vague on enforcement. In May 1883, an ordinance was passed that provided the City Marshall the authority to force-ably enter an establishment and make arrests for gambling violations. Gamblers were fined between $20 and $50 and gambling establishments were fined between $25 and $200 for each offence.10

The city held a unique relationship with gaming houses for the next two years. Gambling prohibition created an atmosphere much like alcohol prohibition did forty years later. Saloon proprietors hid illegal gambling practices and officials pretended not to notice. It must have been symbiotic. Kickbacks were likely if government officials, including the mayor, dined at the Elephant on a regular basis. Sam Berliner's name frequently adorned the docket of the court, but as long as he paid the fine, the Elephant was allowed to operate. That all changed in March of 1885 when the Texas Senate passed a bill that changed gambling from a misdemeanor to a felony, punishable by a two year term of imprisonment. Nicknamed the "Bucket Shop" bill, the new state law provided city law makers a reason to change the status quo in San Antonio. Gambling establishments in the city, including the White Elephant, were forced to pack up shop and move to a more remote location.

"The White Elephant, the largest gambling establishment in the state, closed its rooms permanently this morning. The place will be moved to Hot Springs, and will be backed there by the same large capital floating it in this city. The proprietors were forced to this step by the purpose of the grand jury to indict the management and employees separately for every ten hours of exhibition of games under the new law."11 Open gambling in San Antonio went belly up. Proprietors were forced to move outside the city or conceal the full extent of gambling ventures at their establishment. "It  is the opinion of the sporting fraternity that the operation of the new law will effectively suppress open gambling, which will however, bob up by the organization of alleged social clubs."12

Berliner and Fowler vacated their opulent building and far moved out to the Big Bend of the Rio Grande, near the Texas/Mexico border. Not much is known about their lives after they left San Antonio. Ironically, even they ended up running a cheap copy of the White Elephant somewhere.

"When the boys go to San Antone, they can not milk the elephant any more. The White Elephant has closed its gambling apartments. It was sore to tread on the toes of those who undertook to milk it."13

Bowser, David. West of the Creek: Murder, Mayhem, and Vice in Old San Antonio. San Antonio: Maverick Publishing, 2003.
Waller, Randall Lionel. The Callaghan Machine and San Antonio Politics, 1885-1912. Texas Tech University: Master's Thesis in History, 1973.
Sanburn Fire insurance Maps, Morrison & Fourmy's Business Directory of San Antonio 1885
San Antonio Light, San Antonio Daily Express, Galveston Daily News

1. "The White Elephant," The San Antonio Light (20 Dec 1883), 1.5.
2. "White Elephant Restaurant and Lunch," The San Antonio Light (14 Jan 1884), 4.2.
3. "The White Elephant," The San Antonio Light (20 Dec 1883), 1.5.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. "Light Flashes," The San Antonio Light (31 Aug 1883), 4.1.
9. "Still Booming," The San Antonio Light (22 Oct 1883), 4.2.
10. E.P. Claudon, City Clerk, "An Ordinance: To Define and Punish Gaming," The San Antonio Light (12 Jun 1883), 3.2.
11. "Gamesters Must Go," Galveston Daily News (24 Apr 1885), 1.4.
12. Ibid.
13. "The Seguin Times says," Galveston Daily News (9 May 1885), 4.5.

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