Grab a Drink at Oakland’s Oldest Bar, Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon
Resting on the banks of the Oakland Estuary sit a pair of buildings that look like they have been plucked from a wild west set; a small wooden saloon and an even smaller log cabin, making for an odd vignette among the taller glass and steel structures, railroad tracks, and sailboats. The saloon, dubbed Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon is Oakland’s oldest bar, and the log cabin pays tribute to one of the saloon’s most prominent patrons.
While the First and Last Chance Saloon is a staple of Oakland, it didn’t start its life as a saloon, in fact, it didn’t start its life out as a building or even in California. The wood planks that make up the saloon were pulled from the Umatilla, an abandoned stern-wheel paddle steamer that was originally constructed in 1858 in the Oregon Territory, that had been left along the Oaklast Estuary. The timbers were repurposed to first build a bunk house for oyster hunters, but soon a man named Johnny Heinold would pay $100 and transform it into the icon it is today. Opening June 1, 1884, Heinold adopted the name First and Last Chance due to the saloon’s location along the dock as a place of both comings and goings, and it would later garner the love and attention of the famed writer Jack London, who wrote such classics as The Call of the Wild, and White Fang.
Over the decades many came and went through the small saloon, including the wounded and dead from a train accident that occurred in 1890 when a train fell into the estuary, with the saloon becoming a temporary hospital and even morgue for the victims. In 1906 the tragedy of the San Francisco Earthquake occurred, and leaving its mark on the saloon. As the supports under the saloon sank, it left part of the floor at a slant, which has remained unchanged since, adding to the odd charm of the nearly 140 year old establishment. When Prohibition arrived, Johnny abided by, noting that his son fought to protect the Constitution during the Great War, and he would abide by it. Prohibition ended the same year Johnny passed away, his son, George, the very same one who fought in World War I, took over. George kept the drinks flowing until his passing in 1970, when his widow, Margaret Heinold took the reins. Under Margaret’s eye, the saloon became an Oakland landmark in 1975. The Heinold family ownership ended in 1984 when Margaret sold the saloon to Carol Bookman who continues the legacy of this unique icon of Oakland. In 2000 Heinold’s was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
While known as the First and Last Chance Saloon, it has also garnered the nickname “Jack London’s Rendezvous” as writer Jack London would frequent the establishment over his lifetime. London was born January 12, 1867 to a spiritualist mother who made money doing seances, and an unknown father, although there are those who believe his father was a traveling astrologer. London’s time at Heinold’s begins when it was just a child, sitting inside reading the books he borrowed from the public library, while also hearing tales from the many sailors and “oyster pirates” who visited the saloon. Heinold’s would also be the location where he made the deal to buy his first boat, Razzle-Dazzle, at just 15 years old. He also dreamed of going to the University of California, and Johnny loaned London the money, however London left after only his first semester and began a life of adventure that would take him all over, and eventually putting pen to paper to write adventurous stories of his own. London would go on to mention Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon in both John Barleycorn and Tales of the Fish Patrol.
The signs and mural aren’t the only homages to London. In fact the First and Last Chance Saloon is located within what is known as Jack London Square, and just a few feet from the saloon stands a modest log cabin, another artifact from London’s past.
For two years, in 1897 and 1898, Jack joined the hunt for gold in Alaska, resided in a log cabin. Another author, Russ Kingman, who would later compile a pictorial biography of London, learned of the cabin’s existence, and that it had London’s signature carved into it. In 1968 (although interestingly enough, the plaque reads 1968, while Visit Oakland’s website says 1965) he set out to authenticate it with the help of a handwriting expert from the Oakland Police Department, Sergeant Ralph Godfrey. Together the pair verified London’s signature and the cabin was disassembled and separated into two piles. Half went to Dawson City, as part of the Jack London Museum, and the other half to Oakland, with two replicas being built, one in each city, using parts of the original cabin.
While Jack London has the deepest connection to Heinold’s, other writers such as Robert Lewis Stevenson, Joaquin Miller, Rex Beach, and George Sterling have also set foot inside Heinold’s, as did President William Howard Taft.
Belly up to the tilted bar at Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, and peek into Jack London’s Alaskan cabin in Jack London Square at 48 Webster Street in Oakland.
Brandt, Kennth. “The Short, Frantic, Rags-to-Riches Life of Jack London.” Smithsonian Magazine, 22 November 2016. Accessed 8 July 2022.
“The Story of Heinold’s First & Last Chance Saloon.” Informational sheet onsite.
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