The legends of Oakland’s oldest bar, Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon
on July 26, 2011
There are many legends at Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, which opened in 1883 and is the oldest bar in Oakland. Some are easier to prove than others.
Among the more famous: The clock on the wall is supposed to have stopped during the 1906 earthquake. The floor, which slants down steeply from the front entrance, was said to have became irrecoverably tilted at the same time. Legendary author Jack London, whose portrait was painted on the side of the building in 1914, is said to have studied as a boy at the same tables that sit in the bar today. The bar appears 17 times in London’s novel John Barleycorn and London is said to have taken notes for The Sea Wolf and Call of the Wild while sitting in First and Last Chance.
The bar remained open during Prohibition because it served food, and outlawed alcohol also made its way into First and Last Chance, one way or another. “That’s another legend,” bartender Huber Courdais said with a coy smile. “How can you ask a sailor not to drink?”
The origins of the name “First and Last Chance” come from the bar’s port location, and its steadfastness in providing alcohol to those who could not find it elsewhere. For the bar’s first 40 or so years of existence, it was known simply as J.M. Heinold’s Saloon, named after John Heinold, the original owner. But in the 1920s, Alameda, just across the estuary from Oakland, was a dry town, so grabbing a drink at Heinold’s was a first opportunity for an adult beverage for those coming to Oakland, and a last for those leaving.
Heinold’s has been continuously open—liquor-law abiding, or not—for more than 125 years in what is now Jack London Square. It’s a dark and small bar that usually isn’t very crowded but is packed with mementos—framed pictures, sailor hats, money from all over the world and signs more than a century old hang from its walls.
The bar also carries the name “Jack London’s Rendezvous” and attracts his fans from all over the world. Last week, members of the French Jack London Society visited the bar, and Carol Brookman, who has owned the bar for 27 years, said Jack London societies from Japan and Germany have visited as well. “You never know who’s going to walk in that front door,” Brookman said.
The bar is popular for tourists wandering around Jack London Square, especially Jack London fans, and there are pink pieces of paper that detail the bar’s history stacked up on a table. On a recent Thursday afternoon, Julie Lowe, a Jack London fan from Knoxville, Tennessee, sat in the bar and sipped a vodka tonic. Lowe said she was in Oakland with her husband on business and had to come and check out First and Last Chance when she heard about it at her hotel.
“One of the first books I read that I can remember reading was Call of the Wild,” Lowe said of London’s classic novel. “It probably started my love of reading. So when I saw this was Jack London Square, I was like ‘I have to go there.’ And then I found this place.”
For more on the history and legends of First and Last Chance, click through the slideshow above.
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