San Francisco Chronicle

Saloon was Yerba Buena’s rollicking epicenter

- By Gary Kamiya

Last week’s Portals told the story of how little there was to do in Yerba Buena, the Mexican hamlet that was to become San Francisco. Much of what did happen in Yerba Buena took place in one of its first buildings, a ramshackle saloon and billiards parlor built in 1840 by a Swiss named Jean-Jacques Vioget.

Vioget’s saloon, on Clay Street just east of Kearny, was to become the first hotel in California, but many rollicking events took place within its walls before it ever recorded a paying guest.

Vioget himself was typical of the unusual characters who ended up in Yerba Buena. He was a sea captain who had fought for Napoleon and served in the Brazilian navy before becoming captain of the Ecuadoran bark Delmire, which traded along the west coast of South America.

In the spring of 1837, Vioget sailed into Yerba Buena. Vioget, who in addition to being a sea captain was an accomplish­ed artist, painted the cove, with its lone two houses surrounded by green hills, from the deck of his ship. It was the first painting ever made of the future site of San Francisco.

Vioget loaded his ship with tallow and sailed away, but returned in 1839, this time for good. Since he was also an expert surveyor, he was hired by the town’s alcalde — a kind of combinatio­n of mayor and judge — to conduct the first official survey of Yerba Buena.

Vioget carried out the survey using two horsemen hauling lengths of chain marked out in varas (a vara was roughly a yard). The map that resulted, depicting seven streets that did not yet exist, formed the plan out of which the city of San Francisco would grow. The off-kilter nature of that future city was presaged by the fact that Vioget’s right angles were off by 2½ degrees.

Vioget used his earnings from the survey to build his

saloon and billiards parlor. It quickly became the center of town, helped by the fact that he was an entertaini­ng and gregarious man. One day in the early 1840s, a momentous encounter took place there.

Eating contest

Vioget was talking with a good friend, a Russian named Don Andres Hoeppner, and the conversati­on turned to which of the two men could eat the most.

Vioget prided himself on being a serious trencherma­n, so when Hoeppner challenged Vioget to an eating contest, the Swiss immediatel­y accepted. A date was set and invitation­s were sent out.

The day of the showdown arrived. The cook was a typical bibulous Yerba Buena oddball known as old Jack Fuller, who in addition to wielding a mean skillet worked as a butcher, laundryman, tax collector and anything else he could think up.

Epic encounter

When in his cups, which was frequently, this literal jack-of-all-trades had a tendency to “run off the track,” in the words of William Heath Davis, another early Yerba Buena resident. But old Jack appears to have remained fully in control of his faculties and his stove during the epic encounter that followed. Davis relates what took place next in his book “Seventy-Five Years in California.”

Pancakes to start

The contest started out with plate after plate of pancakes, which were quickly devoured, with Hoeppner one plate ahead. Next, Fuller and his assistant brought out guisado, a Spanish meat stew. Several plates of that were also consumed. Then came a dish of carne asada, meat broiled on a spit, of which the two men devoured many plates.

The contest now moved into the heavy carbs phase. Each contestant polished off large quantities of Spanish-style beans and at least a dozen tamales. The final course was an immense pudding and various kinds of pies.

Vioget had managed to stay close to Hoeppner, but the pie course proved his undoing. When he was unable to continue, the Russian, still eating, was declared the winner.

“All were astonished at the quantity of viands that went down the throats of those two men,” Davis wrote. “After concluding their repast they got up and moved around, smoked, drank a little wine, played billiards, and appeared to suffer no inconvenie­nce from the meal each had consumed.”

Vioget later told Davis that he lost only because Hoeppner was 15 or 20 years younger than he was.

Insults and a knifing

No matter how drunken or boisterous, most of the goings-on in Vioget’s bar, as in Yerba Buena in general, were harmless. But on one rare occasion, things got ugly.

In the winter of 1844-45, a Captain Libbey, of the bark Tasso, became infatuated with a young Californio woman. Davis noted, “Libbey was a good-natured man, but rather gross in his appearance,” and the young lady did not return his affections. Complicati­ng matters was the fact that she was also beloved by Francisco de Haro, known as Chico.

The two rivals ran across each other in Vioget’s saloon. “They had imbibed rather freely of California aguardient­e, which when newly made is very stimulatin­g,” Davis wrote.

Chico’s brother, Ramon, was also present, as were the two young men’s uncles. Tensions rose, insults flew, and a fight broke out in which Libbey was stabbed by Chico.

The two brothers and one of the uncles were arrested. After a quick trial, the uncle was released and the two young brothers sentenced to six months in the San Jose calaboose, or jail, Yerba Buena’s calaboose not being functional.

Cold-blooded killing

Libbey soon recovered, and the incident was forgotten. In 1846, the two de Haro twins were gunned down in cold blood during the Bear Flag revolt by John C. Fremont’s men.

An incident arising from the less-than-impregnabl­e state of Yerba Buena’s jail, and other tales of San Francisco’s wild youth, will be the subject of next week’s Portals.

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