Photos by Bill Veale Graphics
In 1889, a Pacific Coast Steamship chugged through the blue diamond water, docking in the beautiful harbor of a small Mexican town south of San Diego. With sounds of an air horn blasting overhead, a young German man disembarked with a stream of other excited passengers. Johann Hussong was deep in thought about his sweetheart, Louise, left behind in Germany and was wondering if he hadn’t taken his dream a bit too far. From the dock he walked across the beach headed to the settlement. He was startled from his reverie by charging horses pulling a fast moving stagecoach. He watched as the driver cracked his whip overhead, leaving him standing in a cloud of dust. The stage was headed into the Santa Clara Mountains where gold had been discovered, sixty miles southeast of what is now known as Ensenada. Johann was not the only one hoping to “strike it rich.” He, like many, believed the newspaper articles written by zealous journalists about new veins of hope being discovered in “lower” California. Looking around the small village, Johann headed towards the assay office following a sweat-incrusted prospector leading his burro, laden with clanking pot and pans. The news wasn’t good, journalists had created the “rush” to make headlines and prospectors filled every steamship and schooner from San Diego. Fevered thoughts of gold would soon be lost in the reality of the day.
Johann was an enterprising chap of 25, he turned his attention to less speculative work. It didn’t take long for him to find other sources of income. He changed his name to John and began to run supplies up and down the Baja coast. He hunted fowl and sold these to the restaurants. Doing so well, in 1890 he began running a six-horse carriage service between the town of Ensenada into the gold rush camps on a very bad road. One day he and his companion, Newt House, flipped the carriage and Newt broke his leg. With no nearby hospital for recuperation, Newt was put up in a cantina owned by J.J. Meiggs, the only “watering hole in town.” Meiggs had a wife that he apparently didn’t like all that well, or maybe it was too much hooch, because he went after her with an axe as the story goes. Meiggs never returned and John managed his bar for nearly a year.
Johann talked Louise into coming to the new frontier to be his wife. Their love survived the nearly three year separation. Now that would make another story. Across the street from Meiggs Cantina was the Southern Lane stagecoach stop. John purchased the building, remodeled and opened a small restaurant where he sold beer for a nickel and whiskey for a dime. In 1892 he bought his liquor license, #002, which is still on the books today. John Hussong at 29, now owned what would become the oldest and most famous bar still in operation in all of Baja California.
Modern day Ensenada. A mammoth cruise ship is moored in the bay and disgorges hundreds of people who walk along the dock towards the main street. Stop lights create great gatherings of people on the corners as four lanes of traffic sweep by. Overhead, a hearty ocean breeze unfurls the majestic Mexican flag, rippling red, green and white. It is a festival every day of the week. The only reminder of the “old days” is a horse drawn carriage that passes with the sounds of hooves clip clopping on pavement and Hussong’s storefront squeezed between towering buildings. Stepping in off the sunlit sidewalk into the dim cave-like interior is an immediate sense of the past. Everyone appears in a shadowy play of light and dark. History permeates the very wood of the walls that are covered with layers of century old paint. Lazy fans hang from a very high ceiling and stir the air. The acoustics create a sense there are many more people in animated conversations then there actually are. It is easy to imagine what it was like 123 years ago as the customers holler for another drink and fill up on their basket of peanuts. The well-worn bartender, with 35 years behind the bar, responds in slow measured movements. It’s as if he had been tending this bar since the earliest days and the only difference today was the style of dress.
Sitting at the bar you look into a smoky reflection of who you are, cracked by a long-ago accident in the original mirror. The heavy wooden bar had to be replaced, but everywhere you look, you will see signs of the history left behind. The oak wood floor is the very same floor walked on by the four generations of Hussong’s that would continue the lineage up to the great grandchildren. Mariachis wait out on the street to begin their day’s work of bringing music into the dusky interior. They lean up against the hitching posts where prospectors used to tie up their burros while they went in to “wet their whistle.”
Ensenada is now known as a destination tourist attraction and there are numerous “watering holes,” fine restaurants and entertainment. Yet we are drawn to the nostalgic past that gives us a place; it grounds us in its history in a way we might not understand. We are lucky that places like Hussong’s still exist. We can experience firsthand that the Wild West was not a fantasy of the movies, but rather a place where real people lived and loved, creating a future for generations to come.
If you plan on staying for a round or two, bring your designated driver. Parking can be problematic, there is secured parking in the back, accessed by going around the block.
Ann Hazzard, Baja Insider and Ensenada Historical Society
Connie Ellig of the Ensenada Gazette
Sylvia K. Flanigan, The Baja California Gold Rush of 1889
The Journal of San Diego History, Winter 1980, Volume 26, Number 1