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.
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.”
In the early 1880s, Leach built a gymnasium at the northwest corner of Second and Broadway. In 1887, he converted the redwood structure into Leach’s Opera House. The theater seated over 800 and doubled as an ice-skating rink.
After a show, Leach usually headed up Broadway to Horton House, where San Diego’s movers and shakers gathered, and drank himself bibulous. (“When he would overstay his visit at the Horton House rendezvous,” writes Don Stewart, “the next day he seemed his best in court.”)
To preserve their reputations, patrons of the Horton House bar entered through the unlit door on Third Street, not through the hotel. One night, as Leach was regaling his cohorts, the door swung open and in walked his impresario-counterpart: Till Burnes.
Burnes was unwelcome north of Market — and knew it. But he made as much money, if not more, than the local crowned heads. He may have wanted to validate his status with a cocktail at the House.
As Burnes was bending an elbow at the sleek, polished-wood bar, Leach made a crack about unwanted lowlifes. Burnes, as if bouncing a customer at the First and Last Chance, pointed to the door and said, “Outside.”
Burnes and Leach assumed their stances: fists up, elbows straight down. Burnes snapped a hard right at Leach’s face.
Now, normally, Leach was quick on his toes. In an 1883 murder trial, he aggravated the prosecuting attorney, Zach Montgomery, so much that Montgomery swung a silver-tipped cane at his opponent. Leach jerked his head back like a cobra and dodged the silver blur with élan.
The lawyer was less agile at Third and Broadway. Burnes caught him flush and smashed his nose.
His face a bloody mush, Leach vowed no revenge. The honey-tongued orator became silent.
Time passed. Leach now had a flattened nose and pinched nasal voice. He grew his blond hair longer but couldn’t hide the permanent mementos.
In the meantime, someone somehow convinced Burnes that he had every right to drink with San Diego’s finest. Burnes accepted the invitation. As he entered the Third Street door, a brusque giant bumped him off balance. When the man didn’t apologize, Burnes saw red and ordered him outside.
The man, it turned out, was a professional boxer from San Francisco. Leach had hired him to inflict vengeful, systematic, bodily harm on Burnes.
John Drummond, a shell dealer who witnessed the fight, said that Burnes, who claimed he never lost a scuffle, got the most merciless beating anyone ever saw. “After if was over,” said Drummond, “Burnes staggered [to the hotel steps], sat down, buried his head in his knees, and cried.”
Next time: Wildcat Alley, the Cribs, and the Sorry Fate of Maggie Bangs.
1. Elizabeth McPhail: [The Stingaree] “was not a subject one wrote home about.”
2. Jerry MacMullen: “It was the recreational area for the Cape Horn sailor, the man-o-warsman, the railroad boomer, the cow-poke, and the amateur Paul Bunyans of the lumber schooners; a few were well-behaved, but many were not.”
3. Don Stewart: “The cheap liquor [sailors] got was enough to make any one pass out.”
Bokovoy, Matthew, San Diego’s Expositions as “Islands on the Land,” 1915–1935, doctoral dissertation, Temple University, 1999.
Brandes, Ray, Susan Carrico, Toni Nagel, “San Diego’s Chinatown and Stingaree District,” archaeological report, University of San Diego, 1986.
Hensley, Herbert C., “Early San Diego: Reminiscences of Early Days and People,” San Diego Historical Society manuscript.
Hugill, Stan, Sailortown, New York, 1967.
McKanna, Bud, “San Diego’s Stingaree,” True West, July, 1985.
McPhail, Elizabeth, “When The Red Lights Went Out in San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History, vol. 20, number 2, spring, 1974.
MacMullen, Jerry, They Came by Sea: A Pictorial History of San Diego Bay, San Diego, 1969; articles in the San Diego Union.
Mills, James, “Sin, Sailing Ships and the STINGAREE: Our Vanished Barbary Coast,” San Diego Magazine, 9, October, 1957.
Schwartz, Henry, Madame Ida & Other Gaslamp Tales, Leucadia, 1989.
Stewart, Don M., Frontier Port: A Chapter in San Diego’s History, Los Angeles, 1965.
…articles from the San Diego Union, the San Diego Sun, and the Los Angeles Times.
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 2
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 3
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 4
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 5
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 6