Since moving to the Old Barbary Coast neighborhood, I’ve heard tales of the gold-mining days and something called Shanghaiing.
After a bit of research, the idea made sense. Starting in the 1840s, people from around the world rushed to San Francisco in search of new fortunes brought by the Gold Rush. And as the years passed, The City became an important port. But while the demand for sailors grew, no one wanted to leave this beautiful town.
That’s where famous players like Shanghai Kelly, Johnny Devine and Miss Piggott stepped in, running bars and drugging sailors (or just about anyone) to supply the need for ship workers.
Call her an early mixologist, but Miss Piggott was most known for her “Miss Piggott cocktail,” which Herbert Asbury mentions in his book “The Barbary Coast.”
The drink was “composed of equal parts of whisky, brandy and gin, with a goodly lacing of laudanum or opium.”
It was commonplace during the time, an unexpected burden for a sailor who wished to set anchor for good, but was destined by force to live a life at sea.
That’s what eventually brought me to The Old Ship Saloon.
As the story goes, in 1851, The Old Ship Saloon was established in the Arkansas, a three-masted ship that was damaged off Alcatraz Island and towed onto the shores of San Francisco before being abandoned. Someone cut a hole on the side of the ship and made it a bar.
After the 1906 earthquake and fire, the ship was replaced with a new building. The bar was renamed a couple of times until it came under the ownership of Bill Duffy, who renamed it The Old Ship Saloon.
At first glance, the watering hole on the corner of Pacific Avenue and Battery Street is just a nautically themed neighborhood bar with framed ephemera of old San Francisco tacked onto the red brick walls. Guys dressed in collars and slacks getting off work in the Financial District drink draft beers over happy-hour fries, while women order tall double-vodka sodas with an extra wedge of lime.
Half the people there on my first afternoon visit were there on my second as well. A healthy following.
I held down the corner of the bar each time, gulping a pilsner to help douse the cautious bites of the spiciest damn Buffalo wings I’ve ever eaten.
Today, no remnants of the old Arkansas ship remain, though Duffy is sure the hull lies under the foundation of the current building.
But near the end of both of my visits, I began to assign characters to the employees, as if they were workers on a ship.
The bartender Paulie, who is probably in his 50s, was at the helm of the octagon-shaped bar taking his last round of orders. All that was missing was the parrot on his shoulder. The night-shift bartender with a long, thin ponytail began his shift and took the wheel. A server with black gauges in his ear grinned at me before I headed downstairs to check out the basement, his messy bunch of curly red hair braided and tied back as he walked the plank.
But before beers, burgers and shots of Fernet with the bartender, The Old Ship Saloon served up a cocktail that literally took you away.
This was the stomping grounds of Shanghaiier Jimmy Laflin. Chef Jake Ersland told me that the old Shanghaiier’s grandchildren came in for their routine visit a week prior to mine. All the guys are named Jimmy Laflin.
Here, Laflin made his loot serving up Miss Piggott’s cocktail. The poor unfortunate would go unconscious and drop through a rumored trap door in the floor and into the basement of the old building. Shanghaied souls would find themselves in a sea of broken glass, their shoes removed to narrow their chance of escape. A short step to the ocean, and they were shipped to sea to work for months, sometimes years.
I always knew this industry was full of pirates, thieves and bandits.