The history of Paso Robles’ Pine Street Saloon
By Buffalo Benford Standley
A local resident shares the history of one of Paso Robles’ longest standing businesses
–As they say in the TV business “Stay Tuned”… not only is the Pine Street Saloon to be featured in a future episode of the Travel Channel’s “The Dead Files,” but owner Ron French is going to set aside some areas of the saloon for some history displays dedicated to the history of the Saloon and the 1800’s in the wild west town of Paso Robles. Reported to be the oldest building in downtown Paso Robles and where for decades there have been stories and tales of ghosts and ghost sightings galore, French even has some caught on his cameras in the saloon.
After two years on the road with Merle Haggard, working with him on his documentary “Learning to Live with Myself,” and his work with me on my documentary, “Father of Country Music,” I needed to leave the road and hang with my kids in Paso Robles. When I mentioned to Merle that I was going to live in Paso back in 2006, he said, “Hey…What is the name of the old saloon there?” I said, “Hmm, Pine Street Saloon.” He said, “Yep that’s it…I remember it from my days traveling out of Bakersfield.”
Hag was always complaining there are so few saloons left, now there’s only theaters and big concert arenas. He would say, “I’m a bar band and I am running out of places to play.” He played me the last song that he had written on his bus at the last show that he performed before his illness took him on the last train ride home.
I was struck by a verse in the song as he played it for me on his bus…
“When you closed down all the honky tonks …The city died at night
When it hurt somebody’s feelings … Well, a wrong ain’t never right.”
–Words from Merle Haggard’s last song “Kern River Blues”
The oldest saloon in Paso Robles
Part of the interesting landscape of early downtown Paso Robles are the properties at 1234, 1236 and 1238 Pine Street. All three properties are on located the east side of the street, mid-block between 12th and 13th streets. 13th Street used to be the old Bakersfield Highway. During the 1880’s, stage coaches would turn and head south down Pine Street on their way to local hotels and the train station after reaching town. This two-story structure is of the oldest buildings in downtown Paso Robles.
1234 Pine street is the oldest standing wooden building in the downtown area. The building says it was built in 1860, but looks to go back to maybe 1856 or 1857. The buildings at 1236 and 1238 Pine Street at one time were the oldest brick buildings in town, which leaves the opportunity for sure for some spirits from the past looming over and around this part of the three historic lots in downtown Paso.
The saloon’s original owner, J. Campbell, who owned several other saloons, built the old brick building. During the booming health resort era the old brick building was used as a candy and gift store, a card room, a billiard parlor and a saloon. The history of mud baths, hot and cold springs, medicine shows, drug stores selling health remedies, elixirs, snake doctor oils, bottled water from the springs and the things you would expect in a health resort during the 1880s.
Hazel Horn, past chair of the Paso Robles Main Street Association’s Design Committee, said “The late 1800’s saw a raw, ‘Wild West’ section of California being tamed. Cattlemen drove herds into town, did their errands, and partook of refreshments in Mr. Campbell’s Saloon. There were over 15 saloons in town, most on Pine Street and 3 banks. Horse races were held along Pine Street every Saturday as entertainment for the cattlemen, ranchers, and townsfolk.”
Every Saturday on Pine Street, also known as “skid row,” there were horse races and street dances for the cattlemen, ranchers, railroad workers, miners, town folks and the many tourists flocking to the area for the hot springs resorts.
Outlaws, ghost stories, prohibition and live music
The town of Paso Robles was started, in part, by Drury James, who was the uncle of the famous Jesse and Frank James. He built and designed the town to be a hot springs resort which made it a big tourist town on the El Camino Real, also known as the “Kings Highway” and “Highway to Heaven,” and currently known as Spring Street.
It’s told that Drury James’ decided his famous outlaw nephews must leave town for they were hanging out downtown and starting to make trouble and be noticed. No doubt Pine Street, where the action was going on, was one of their hangouts. As story tells it, his uncle hid Jesse James out here to heal him in the hot springs from a gun shot wound for about a year and a half.
In his article for Smithsonian Magazine, Matt Kettmann talks about his six-man entourage embarking on what he called “the most authentic and doable old-school tour of the West Coast” and saying, “Our visits to a handful of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo County’s longest continually ale-slinging establishments would indicate that ghost stories may be as old as the saloons themselves.” A number of times the article mentioned the Pine Street Saloon and stories owner Ron French told them, including how his security cameras were picking up a presence…”But was it a mere illusion or something more ghostly?” Kettmann asks.
The Smithsonian articles goes on to say “Ron French, it turns out, might just be the most hospitable saloonkeeper on the planet, having refurbished the upstairs brothel rooms into a boardinghouse of sorts to accommodate overly inebriated guests and purchasing a limousine to drive such patrons home for free, so long as they’re within Paso Robles’ city limits.”
“We go out of our way to take care of customers,” says Ron French. Eight years ago, the saloon acquired its own limousine, which French uses to pick up and deliver a safe ride home for customers when they don’t have a sober driver on hand. Now on Friday and Saturday nights there are two limos giving people rides home which helps keep the streets and citizens safe.
Now, to add to the rumors and stories of the spirits and ghosts of the Pine Street Saloon, the Travel Channel is to release a show they researched and taped at the saloon about the Ghosts of Pine Street Saloon. You will be able to see when the show will run on the saloon’s website www.PineStreetSaloon.com. There is no doubt that this will be a huge boost to downtown tourism in Paso Robles, and will run on National TV soon.
On a side note, or what you might call an “under note” is the stories and rumors about the tunnels under downtown Paso Robles: This writer/researcher has heard stories that they were opium dens, tunnels for the folks to get underground to the hot spring resorts, where they hid out Jesse and Frank James… and what I now believe is the “truth” of these rumors of the tunnels is that they were “Speakeasies”…something that had existed in California since the Gold Rush days of the 1850’s and most defiantly went on a broad expansion when Prohibition was locked in place in the U.S. As a matter of fact, story tells it that Paso Robles went “dry” and underground five years before prohibition in 1920.
In the late 1800’s there were 15+ saloons in downtown Paso. Now we have over 300 vineyards selling wine, and the breweries are following suit. At the same time the town is seeing a new music scene growing, and the Pine Street Saloon is one of the leaders as a live music venue. The only statue in the city park is of the great musician and statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski, who moved to Paso because the hot springs healed his hands from arthritis and he moved here and was part of the new wine industries’ beginning, and the sweet irony that a musician is regarded in such high respect now in a town that is seeing a new music scene grow with the grapes.
The list of characters who have visited the bar is long and varied, including ole Nicolas Escarpio, who was known to ride with Poncho Villa. Dang near every rodeo cowboy in the U.S. for the horse and cattle events at the Mid-State Fair Grounds, which is second to only the Ft. Worth Stock Yards, are down at the saloon after their events, walking through the swings doors. Merle Haggard was a patron, and you can see signed pics of him at the saloon.
Other celebrity guests include the likes of Glen Campbell, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, country star Kacey Musgraves, Bernie Taupin songwriter partner for Elton John, musician/actor Robert Carradine, Willie Nelson’s daughter Paula Nelson, graced the stage with mom Connie Nelson watching, actors Gary Busey, Robert Mitchum, Mel Gibson, Sam Elliot, Greg Kinnear, Grammy Award winner Louie Ortega, Kenny Lee Lewis of Steve Miller Band, Nick St. Nicholas bass player for Steppenwolf, Jack Tempchin Eagles songwriter, Travis Howard mega country hit writer, K.M. Williams legendary blues player and others.
It is a known fact that the Pine Street Saloon is one of the top afternoon and night time hang outs for locals and tourists in downtown Paso. Tourist busses stop there regularly, and nightly there are birthday and wedding parties enjoying the 1880’s atmosphere and the feel of an actual wild west saloon. A lively nightlife is a must if the rich tourists are to enjoy their visits. Unlike all the downtown tasting rooms that close before the sun sets, the saloon stays a draw after folks eat, go to wineries and then want to have fun with their tourist dollars.
Pine Street Saloon Wine and the booming Paso Robles wine industry
The saloon also has its own wine label and joined a number of downtown locations where tourists can stop and try some wine, plus a number of the local beers and other spirits. The region’s darling wine industry is also now lauded for being a serious economic engine, the prime driver for transforming a place once known as a small cow town into a destination that touts some of the area’s best restaurants and all other things hospitality.
The total economic output for SLO County’s wine industry is approximately $1.8 billion dollars. To put that into perspective, Cal Poly’s estimated output to San Luis Obispo and North Santa Barbara counties was $1.4 billion in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, and Diablo Canyon’s economic output in 2011 was $919.8 million. According to a recent study, the industry’s potent economic impacts come from ripple effects of several sectors of the local economy. The report estimated that 67-percent of all winery visits come from people who live outside the county and 28-percent of all hotel stays in SLO County are booked because of the area’s wine industry.
As the wine industry continues to explode we see the beginning of a new crazy growth of beer breweries in Paso, and new ones on the way, including the popular Firestone Walker Brewing Co., Barrel House Brewing and the Earth and Fire Brewing Company. Beer tours are now jumping in with the wine tour business. If we want to talk beer, a number of the saloon’s beer suppliers report that it is the top venue in the county for bottle beer sales.
A top tourist destination
The great history and the already large number of people that pass through the Pine Street Saloon doors every day, and especially on weekends, this saloon may be on the top of tourist locations in downtown Paso “bar” none, no pun intended. French estimates that thousands of people a month walk through them swinging doors for music, wine, beer and spirits of the beverage and ghostly types.
Just this past June, the Paso Robles Main Street Association awarded the Pine Street Saloon for some of their landscape work, and in a letter they stated “The Pine Street Saloon has been a welcome partner in the downtown area for over 45 years. We have never had a complaint from surrounding businesses or patrons about the Pine Street Saloon. We appreciate your free ride program which has reduced DUIs downtown by 30-percent in the last eight years that it has been in operation. We also appreciate your sharing security video that faces the alley, Pine and Railroad Streets. This is something we have encouraged other merchants to do and you have taken the lead.”
Again, stay tuned to the Travel Channel for the special episode of “The Dead Files,” or on the website at www.PineStreetSaloon.com where you can read some more history of this popular tourist destination and hot spot in the town for the past 160 years and see the music calendar and pictures from the fun nights in the saloon.