150 Years of Slinging Drinks: A Visit to the Iron Door Saloon
Just miles down the road from Yosemite, the Iron Door Saloon in Groveland claims to be California’s oldest continuously operating bar.
It has served gold prospectors, loggers and workers coming to the Sierra Nevada for more than 150 years. Just like a majestic waterfall or granite peak, it’s a sight to behold.
The saloon is dark and cavernous, with the original granite walls from the 1850s. Two swinging cast-iron doors, shipped over from England, gave the bar its name. They also have protected it from forest fires over the years, allowing it to survive longer than other bars.
“The story was, when a fire raged through town, you just closed your doors and your stuff would be safe,” says owner Chris Loh.
Huge elk heads hang from the walls and stare longingly at a mix of locals and tourists eating burgers and drinking beer. In one corner (which I call the corner of death), a giant saw and other old mining equipment hangs precariously over bar patrons.
The most defining feature is the ceiling, which is completely covered in wadded-up dollar bills. Sitting at the bar, regular John Strusinski tells me the dollars were an insurance policy for miners going out to look for gold. “They wrote their name on [a bill] and they tacked it up on the ceiling, so when they came back, whether they had money or not, they were sure they had money for their first drink.”
Now, people willingly throw their money up on the ceiling to join the tradition.
While we’re looking at the ceiling, Loh points out a few bullet holes. I ask when they’re from: perhaps a Gold Rush-era shootout?
Nah, Loh explains. They're from 1987.
Yikes. Apparently, it was a rough-and-tumble biker bar in the '80s until it got a new owner, Pete Barsotti. He was the artistic director and right-hand man to legendary rock-and-roll promoter Bill Graham.
Barsotti’s daughter, Corinna Loh, co-owns the bar with husband Chris. She says her dad was famous for designing crazy stunts at concerts.
“He thought it would be great to get a bunch of pingpong balls stamped with the Rolling Stones tongue, and then a bunch of blow-up dolls dropped out of an airplane over the stadium.”
Barsotti brought his creative flair to the Iron Door. It was his idea to bring back the dollars on the ceiling. He also made the bar a venue for live music, including Thursday night karaoke.
I graced the stage many times during my stint as a summer camp counselor near Yosemite during college. In fact, I even got kicked out once for dropping the mic. They take karaoke very seriously here.
But what about the question of whether this bar is California’s oldest? Kathy Brown, from the Groveland Historical Museum, says the original building from 1852 was definitely a supply shop for gold miners.
Brown says the legend is the store also had a makeshift bar. ”That would just be set up with a plank of wood over flour barrels, and they would serve whiskey to miners.” Brown explained. "They probably would get pretty drunk. They worked hard, and that was their fluid intake."
Even if the original mercantile shop did start serving drinks in the 1850s, Brown says it’s almost impossible to prove whether it’s the oldest saloon still in operation in California. There were no liquor licenses back then, so you can't check that way. The Iron Door doesn’t show up on the Tuolumne County tax rolls until 1896.
Brown says another reason why the claim is questionable is because the building served as an official U.S. Post Office for about 25 years. Apparently, you can’t serve alcohol in a post office.
You also couldn’t sell booze during Prohibition, but the Door claims it did -- by calling itself a soft-drink establishment.
So, is the Iron Door the oldest continuously operating saloon in California? A few other bars around the state make similar claims that are similarly hard to prove. All we know for sure is that the Iron Door is old, and it’s still serving drinks. But a bar that’s been influenced by the Gold Rush, Yosemite National Park and rock 'n' roll is certainly unique to California.