Story

Jack London at Overland House

Overland House
Jack London spent a fair amount of time around the Oakland waterfront, hanging out with oyster pirates like his friend Nelson (aka "Young Scratch") at the saloons of the waterfront. While his favorite might have been Heinhold's First and Last Chance Saloon, which is still standing amidst the redevelopment of Jack London Square, he also told a tale about Overland House, a couple blocks away at 101 Broadway. (A restaurant called Barclay's now occupies the location.)

That very spot, the beginning of Broadway, represents, as Ishmael Reed put it, the spot "where the American history of Oakland begins." Broadway was first "an Indian dirt path, then became a cattle trail, and then a streetcar line," Reed continues. Now, it's a paved road, divided by a narrow strip of trees and running right through the heart of Oakland.

London's story from this spot tells us something about how the city was run in the the 1890s. Politicians, London says, liked to round up the local guys at the saloons and buy them drinks in exchange for votes. In this particular case, they even loaded up the men and put them a train to another city as torchbearers, after which they paid for the men to drink all they could consume.

"Nelson and I were sitting in Overland House. It was early in the evening, and the only reason we were there was because we were broke and it was election time. You see, in election time local politicians, aspirants for office, have a way of making the rounds of the saloons to get votes. One is sitting at a table, in a dry condition, wondering who is going to turn up and buy him a drink, or if his credit is good at some other saloon and if it's worth while to walk that far to find out, when suddenly the saloon doors swing wide and enters a bevy of well-dressed men, themselves usually wide and exhaling an atmosphere of prosperity and fellowship.

They have smiles and greetings for everybody—for you, without the price of a glass of beer in your pocket, for the timid hobo who lurks in the corner and who certainly hasn't a vote but who may establish a lodging-house registration. And do you know, when these politicians swing wide the doors and come in, with their broad shoulders, their deep chests, and their generous stomachs which cannot help making them optimists and masters of life, why, you perk right up. It's going to be a warm evening after all, and you know you'll get a souse started at the very least. And — who knows? — the gods may be kid, other drinks may come, and the night culminate in glorious greatness. And the next thing you know, you are lined up at the bar, pouring drinks down your throat and learning the gentlemen's names and the offices which they hope to fill...

Well, on this night, broke, thirsty, but with the drinker's faith in the unexpected drink, Nelson and I sat in the Overland House waiting for something to turn up, especially politicians. And there entered Joe Goose—he of the unquenchable thirst, the wicket eyes, the crooked nose, the flowered vest.

'Come on fellows—free booze—all you want of it. I didn't want you to miss it.'

'Where?' we wanted to know.

'Come on. I'll tell you as we go along. We haven't am inure to lose.' And as we hurried up town, Joe Goose explained. 'It's the Hancock Fire Brigde. All you have to do is wear a red shirt and a helmet, and carry a torch. They're going down on a special train to Haywards to parade.'

(I think the place was Haywards. It may have been San Leandro or Niles. And to save me, I can't remember whether the Hancock Fire Brigade was a Republican or Democratic organization. But anyway, the politicians who ran it were short of torch-bearers, and anybody who would parade could get drunk if he wanted to.)

'The town'll be wide open,' Joe Goose went on. 'Booze? It'll run like water. The politicians have bought the stocks of the saloons. There'll be no charge. All you go to do is walk right up and call for it. We'll raise hell.'"

And that's exactly what they did.

From Jack London's memoir, John Barleycorn