MOORHEAD — Saloon Row vanished decades ago from the riverfront district where drinking establishments once flourished in the town’s raw years. But it still has a few stories left to tell.
And the clues are coming from, of all places, debris sifted from what once were trash piles behind bars — a jumble of broken whiskey bottles, ceramic plates, stoneware jugs, animal bones and oyster shells.
During the peak of Moorhead’s saloon era, which ran from 1890 to 1915, followed by an underground revival during the Prohibition era of 1915 to 1937, Saloon Row was crammed with 48 bars.
Luckily for George Holley, an archaeologist who led a recent excavation of a portion of the former Saloon Row, municipal trash collection in Moorhead didn’t begin until 1948, leaving plenty of remnants of saloon life to be studied.
Holly compares the fragments to a “time capsule of trash that will reveal changing tastes and behaviors of the customers of these businesses.”
“We found more than 6,000 artifacts and we barely scratched the surface,” Holley said. “It’s teeming with the stuff. The variety of stuff we found was incredible.”
Holley will discuss his findings at a free lecture, “Excavating Whiskey: The Archaeology of Moorhead Saloons,” at 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 24, at the Hjemkomst Center.
Two of the most conspicuous saloons in those binging times were the Midway Cafe, a palatial tavern that was ablaze in glitzy lights and boasted a decorative “Corinthian column,” and a neighbor with the more downtrodden name of Three Orphans.
Both saloons were located near the old North Bridge, which spanned the Red River from NP Avenue near today’s Case Plaza to a location near today’s American Crystal Sugar headquarters in Moorhead.
The location was strategic. Each was positioned near the foot of the bridge, where thirsty patrons flocked from across the river in North Dakota, which entered the union as a dry state when it became a state in 1889.
“They were as close to Fargo as they could be,” said Mark Peihl, archivist at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, who has researched Moorhead’s saloon era. “First chance, last chance kind of thing.”
North Dakota’s drinking ban was a business opportunity for the likes of the Midway Cafe and Three Orphans, which thrived during a period when Fargo-Moorhead’s population was rising. Moorhead also was strategically located as the “wet” shipping hub on the Northern Pacific Railway located closest to “dry” North Dakota and other points further west, Holley said.
“This is sort of a stopping-off point for goods going to the west,” and it was legal to ship alcohol from Moorhead, but not in Fargo, he said.
The Midway Cafe was not the dusty saloon that epitomized the Old West. It served brandies, Canadian Scotch and Irish whiskey, Champagne, French and American wines, ales and mineral waters. “This is not your rotgut whiskey and beer,” Holley said. It even had a reading room for its literary-minded patrons.
The Midway also allowed women. “That was one of the few,” Holley said. “It was unusual at the time.”
“It’s hard to imagine this place,” Holley said, adding that the Midway Cafe was “without a doubt” one of Moorhead’s most impressive establishments in its time.
Also one of Moorhead’s shadiest, Peihl said.
The Midway Cafe had its own electricity generator — an innovation it found prudent to invest in after a reform mayor’s anti-corruption crusade prompted an investigation that revealed bars including the Midway paid bribes for cut-rate water and electricity rates, he said.
Crime, in fact, was a byproduct of Saloon Row.
One of the Midway’s signature attractions was an instrument called an Orchestrian that included a sophisticated pipe organ.
“You put in a nickel and it would play pretty spectacular tunes,” said Peihl, who has a recording of one of the instruments. “My goodness, it’s pretty impressive.”
(Photo courtesy of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, recording courtesy of Durward Center.)
The Three Orphans touted its 48-foot bar as the longest in the United States, giving its patrons bragging rights for having bellied up to its impressive linear proportions.
Arrests for public drunkenness rose reliably from August until November, a seasonal upswing coinciding with the fall harvest, Peihl said.
“The arrest records skyrocketed,” he said.
Some of Moorhead’s saloons were owned by breweries, including Hamm’s and Pabst, a form of direct marketing. They were called “tied houses,” given their ties to the breweries.
Over time, Moorhead found itself tied economically to the bars that dominated its commerce. But there was a sizable faction of citizens who disapproved of the bars and the nuisances and crimes they generated.
Those citizens’ voices began to be heard in 1914, when Clay County voted to ban alcohol sales under open local option laws. Moorhead was slow to join the movement, but the ban came in 1915, a new era heralded by fireworks.
Confronted by the alcohol ban, some saloons turned into billiards halls and “soda pop shops,” but quietly sold whiskey under the table.
“It was an entrenched culture, an entrenched business,” Holley said. “It just went underground.”
Nondescript pint and half-pint bottles turned up in Holley’s excavation, and he believes they probably were empties tossed into the woods or river during Prohibition, since they lack the markings that often adorned branded liquor.
The findings of Holley’s field work, begun in the fall of 2017 and completed last summer, enabled the rerouted recreation path to bypass the area where the trash midden was found, leaving what remains of Saloon Row undisturbed.
“The footings and foundations have all been destroyed by urban renewal going back to the ‘20s,” he said. “Moorhead has destroyed its past.”
Some things don’t change, however. While Holley’s team was doing field work near the river, they found empty liquor bottles that had been recently discarded.
“It’s still a place where hidden activities go on,” he said.
Holley is still working on the final report of his findings. He hopes that guideposts can be added to familiarize those walking that segment of the trail with the area’s colorful saloon era past.
If you go:
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 24
Where: Hjemkomst Center, 202 First Ave. N., Moorhead