Opened way back in 1883, this dive bar was cool before any of us knew what cool could be. It was so cool that Jack London would often hang out here. (The proprietors of the place say that London wrote his notes for what would eventually become Call of the Wild while drinking at the bar—it’s also mentioned several times by name in his novels John Barleycorn and The Tales of the Fish Patrol.)
Originally built from the remains of a whaling vessel, Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon is a shack situated on the corner of Jack London Square in Oakland, California. It has been in continuous operation since 1883. And, frankly, it looks like it. But that’s part of the appeal—hey, they don’t have Jack London anymore to draw in visitors. This is one of the diviest of dive bars.
The most distinctive feature of Heinold’s First and Last Chance is the floors that are not level – by several feet. During the 1906 earthquake the pilings under the building settled and threw off the floors to by several degrees, and stopped the clock in the corner, still set to 5:18. Nobody has bothered to fix this issue in the last 100-plus years. For that, you’d probably have to shut down for a couple of days, and Heinold’s just doesn’t do that.
Another distinctive feature of Heinold’s is the signed dollar bills that cover some of the walls. Sailors and soldiers would sign their money and put it on the wall so that they would have some ready money when they returned to California. But most never came back, something that is clear upon your first visit when you have a chance to see all of the money that is still tacked up. Oakland, of course, is a port city and has been for a long time. Heinold’s, as you might suspect from the dollar bills signed by sailors, is a great way to appreciate a bit of maritime history.
When you think about the dollar bills for a minute the name of the bar makes complete sense: It was a reference to the time that sailors had to drink heavy alcohol before heading out on a long voyage – the first and last chance. During Prohibition in the 1920s, the saloon stayed open selling soda pop and cigars. The term “last chance” is used by only a few saloons still standing in in the United States even though it was employed often in the 19th century.
Heinold’s is the last commercial establishment anywhere in California that still uses its original gas lighting. The tables and other furnishings still date back to that old whaling ship from which the site was built. To this day, Heinold’s still houses the original potbellied stove used to warm the room; it’s been the establishment’s only source of heat since 1889.
It’s not just the dive bar fans that recognize the value of Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, though. In January of 1998 the Friends of Libraries U.S.A. added Heinold’s to the Literary Landmarks Register because of the role it played in inspiring some of Jack London’s famous novels. Only two years later, in 2000, the United States Federal Government listed Heinold’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
According to oral tradition passed down through the ages from barkeep to barkeep to patron, during the Great Depression this establishment stayed open by selling lemonade, cigars, and sarsaparilla. Just ask the barkeep for a printout of the history of Heinold’s, and he should have one for you. They also sell booklets and other trinkets that illustrate the wealth of history.
Know Before You Go
At Jack London Square. Go during the weekend farmers markets when the area is alive and fun to explore and people-watch.