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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Gambling in Gold Country

The thousands of greenhorn gold rushers who invaded California in 1849 were quickly followed by those who came to “fleece” the miners of their hard-gotten gold: merchants who sold supplies and equipment at inflated prices, saloon owners, and professional gamblers all set their sights on making a profit from lonely men who were far from home.

After the backbreaking work of panning for gold, any diversion was a welcome relief. Alcohol consumption escalated to astonishing levels. Gambling was the leading leisure activity everywhere, from isolated mountain camps to settled coastal villages. It was a pastime rooted in the same frontier spirit of adventure, opportunity, and risk taking that had brought the gold rushers west in the first place: the promise of easy and abundant riches. Besides, in the early days of the Gold Rush there was very little else to do for relaxation and entertainment.

San Francisco quickly replaced New Orleans as America’s premier gambling center. The market for gambling space there was so strong that in 1849 a mere canvas tent commanded a rental of $40,000 annually, payable in advance with gold dust. Famous gambling houses in San Francisco included the Parker House, Dennison’s Exchange, and the El Dorado Gambling Saloon.

As settlements grew, gambling halls were typically the first erected, and the largest and most ornately decorated buildings, in any town; a driving force behind the local economy. The towns themselves earned revenues from issuing gaming licenses and collecting taxes. Within a few years, however—as more families arrived in California—the newly-settled, respectable citizenry came to view gambling as a blight on public morals. Beginning in the mid-1850s, the state legislature and local governments passed various anti-gambling statues and city ordinances. It took time to vanquish “the evil” (though the crusade was never 100 percent successful) but by the early 1870s the major gambling dens had closed.

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