Port Costa. For years it seems every person I know has told me that it is a crime that I have not been out to this bemusingly bizarre biker bar and the hotel across the street that has changed little since it was a 19th century brothel. Port Costa. Is that the name of the city or the bar or the hotel? All I knew was that it was near the Carquinez Bridge and all the stories I had ever heard of the place ran in the same vein as, “So I had just taken my forth tequila shot in Tijuana when the biggest…” Information online for the city and bar was scant, but intriguing. Before I thought it over too much, I drained my Earl Gray, gave a high five to some kid standing in my driveway and got on the I-80 North. Usually if I’m taking that freeway further than Golden Gate Fields it means I’m on vacation, and for a few hours I was.
I should mention right away here than I barely scratched the surface of history of the Warehouse Café. I found some helpful resources on the town of Port Costa at the Oakland Public Library, but the bar that most people in the area know the town for has no official records. The bartender and customers did not even know who to direct me to who could give definitive information. So I gathered the recollections and stories I could on one afternoon, but I got the impression than entire book could be written on the Warehouse Café and the Burlington Hotel.
Exiting just before the Carquinez Bridge and driving east, I passed through the beautiful, quaint town of Crockett, fostered like brick laid ivy up the hillside above the Carquinez Strait that the connects the Sacramento River Delta from the San Francisco Bay. This already felt remote to me, but soon the town gave way to naked rolling hills, brown with October and raw with a warm, dry wind that is impossible not to mark as a fireman’s son. I only drove about three miles, but it felt longer because of the windy roads and uncertainty where I was going, when suddenly Port Costa appeared. The houses, which probably number a few more than fifty, were mostly older California ranch style, but there is wide variety, right up to houses that look like 1970’s tract houses with no tract around them.
The one road through town deposited me into a dirt parking lot that ends a chain-linked fence, that is followed up a set of train tracks, then about a mile of water to Bencia directly across. One would never guess to look at this narrow strip of abandoned coastal land now, but it was not only was the genesis of the town, it was one of the most important hubs during California’s “Bread Basket to the World” grain boom of the 1880’s, supplied a wharf that hosted the largest ferries in the world, and was the impetus behind the ambitious machinations of men who all saw their fortunes rise and fall (usually literally going up in smoke) right here in a town that rarely had more than a population of 300 people.
I’m not doing a history of the “census-designated place” of Port Costa, see the books in my bibliography for a more in depth look, but there is no telling the story of the Warehouse Café without give some of the story of Port Costa. That story mainly revolves around two men: George Washington McNear and Bill Rich (who we will get to in time).
In the 1870’s the Central Pacific railroad company sought a new route from the Oakland and the Bay to the transcontinental railroad and the agriculturally rich Central Valley. The only other line ran over the treacherous Altamont Pass and it was controlled by the California Pacific company. Before they built a bridge connecting Solano and Contra Costa counties, it was decided to ferry the actual train cars across the strait from Benicia (which briefly served as the state capital in 1853 and ‘54) to small ranch called Bull Valley, which was chosen because it was so close and had deep waters. In 1879 the largest ferry on the planet at the time, the Solano, left the West Oakland shipyard to beginning shuttling trains and passengers across the thin band of water.
George McNear, a Scot financier and grain impresario, saw the obvious potential in Bull Valley as a hub for big business and began buying up the surrounding ranch lands. He didn’t just build warehouses for his grain, but aided in the building of a school, churches and other buildings. He even designed an water system that he owned and operated. The name Port Costa made more sense than Bull Valley because it was now the port of Contra Costa and it sounded more official. McNear was open for business shortly after the Solano began running (to be followed soon after by another ferry of the same size called the Contra Costa) and he was partial owner of nearly everything in the new town.1
One of the many warehouses McNear built was finished in 1886 and was the fist fireproof building in Contra Costa county (as commemorated today on a plaque outside), which turned out to be good thing because a major drawback nobody had seen to Bull Valley was that it was seriously prone to fires. The withered grasses and chaparral, paired with the strong, dry wind that tore through the hills, that I had noticed on my drive over was not an anomaly. The next sixty or so years were a succession of blazes that wiped out warehouses, wharfs, ships and the dreams of anybody who invested money in the waterfront. The 1906 earthquake did its fair share of damage and a teredo (a type of worm that eats ships and docks) infestation in 1921 destroyed most of the waterfront. People, including McNear, who conspired to corner the wheat market or dominate West Coast shipping by using Port Costa were ruined as they built up and then were forced to rebuild. Gradually, they stopped rebuilding, a bridge to neighboring Martinez opened in 1931, the Solano stopped running and the town had virtually drifted into obscurity by the fire on Labor Day of 1941 that left only one warehouse left in town.2 Guess which one?
At one end of the dirt parking lot the warehouse with the bottom floor that house the Warehouse Café doesn’t look much like a warehouse or a bar, just a large concrete building that would seem more like part of an old California Spanish mission. Across the street, I notice the Victorian three-story Burlington Hotel, a former bordello and cheap place to sleep off the drink rather than tackle the unlit, curvy roads back to all points other than here. Inside, the dark warehouse is filled with artifacts from the town’s past that probably feel spooky when closing down the bar in the wee hours. The main bar section is brighter and looks nicely out onto a patio, with the water and adjacent hills beyond.
I ordered a drink, identify myself to the bartender as a undergrad at Cal State East Bay doing a project on historical bars and I am met with an expression I’m growing familiar with: a mix between being utterly unimpressed and dread that I’m going a be asking a bunch of annoying questions. But I’m also learning the value in patience when it comes to discussions like these. I let him do his work as I sip my beer, ask a couple small questions when the opportunities arise, but mostly chat with other people at the bar and generally try to be a good customer first, then a historian. By the time I finished my second beer I had Larry, the bartender, and a man from Martinez (whose name I never caught) feeding off each other and competing to tell me what they know about the bar.
Larry thought the bar opened in this incarnation in 1967 or ‘68, but the man from Martinez said he remembered coming here with his grandfather a few years before that when it was a cowboy bar from all the ranch hands in the surrounding hills. “I would be the only one in here not in a cowboy hat,” the man from Martinez told me. He said the windy road, Carquinez Scenic Drive, used to be the only way to get from Martinez to Richmond and from there they would take San Pablo Ave all the way down to Oakland. He’d often ride with his grandfather on these trips and stop at the Warehouse Café on the way back, though it wasn’t called that back then. I asked the man from Martinez if he knew how old the bar was. “Well, let me ask you… is that a buffalo?” he said and pointed to the head mounted on the wall.
“It appears so,” I said.
“Is that a big white bear?” he asked, pointing to the glass enclosed and taxidermied polar bear, standing on hide legs for a ferocious man-eating attack.
“Is that a… what is that? An elk?” he asked, pointing to the head of some horned buck.
“Close enough for my guess,” I said truthfully.
"Then you know it’s got to be pretty damn old.”
I saw no reason to poke holes in this logic and moved on. Later, I came across a picture of the Burlington Hotel from 1960 with the caption saying the warehouse across the street was “mostly unused” at this point. An adjacent picture showed the warehouse in 1977, open for business under the name of Juanita’s Gallery.3
It was on the point of what “mostly unused” means that Larry told me later and was my favorite part of the story. In the early 60’s the warehouse was the occasional site for a gay dinner theater club! Throughout my visit the people I talked to always mentioned Bill Rich as the guy who revitalized the town and tilted their heads to a picture on the wall of a older gentleman in a white cowboy hat. In 1960, Bill Rich, who was a Coors delivery truck driver, borrowed money from his family and bought most of the town for $20,000, including the warehouse and the Burlington Hotel. Rich spent the rest of his life in Port Costa doing his best to make it into a tourist destination and place for galleries and antiques.4 What I was not able to find in print is that, according to Larry, Bill Rich was gay and sought to make Port Costa into an open-minded haven for people to get away from the city be themselves, weather they wanted to experience art or simply go fishing. The performances at the warehouse were part of the fun and there are still some colorful glass orbs from those days that hang near the polar bear. At a time when even homosexuals in San Francisco could not be completely open in public, what a scene Port Costa must have been.
Rich also reopened the Burlington Hotel, playing up its reputation as a former bordello from the untamed port days when it the sailors and railroad men called it “The Dutchman’s” because it was operated by the “spirited” family with the name Boehm.5 Instead of numbers the rooms are labeled with names of women we are led to believe occupied the rooms for means of ill-repute. The bartender at the Warehouse Café also serves as the front desk to the hotel and Larry let me borrow the keys to the Wilma room on the third floor. Sure enough, the red faded wallpaper, simple wood furniture and creaky beds fit exactly what I’ve seen in movies as a Wild West whorehouse. Needless to say, I loved it. The hotel is widely believed to be haunted, but as the man from Martinez said to me when he got the keys to his room, “I keep hoping to see one of these ghosts. I already told me wife, ‘It ain’t cheatin’ if your doing it with a ghost.’”
At some point in the late 70’s bikers discovered the bar as a great stop on weekend rides and the word spread out to everyone in the Bay Area about the tiny town, perfect for an overnight vacation that cost next to nothing, was less and an hour drive from anywhere, and all with the reputation of anything goes in Port Costa.
|view from the Wilma room in the Burlington Hotel|
1. Dick Murdock, Port Costa 1879-1941: A Sage of Sails, Sacks and Rails (Port Costa: Murdock-Endom Publications, 1977), 5-11.
2. Murdock, Port Costa 1879-1941, 36-39.
3. John V. Robinson and Veronica Crane, Port Costa (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2007), 39.
4. Carolyn Jones, “Venerable Port Costa hotel is one of a kind”, San Francisco Chronicle, January 11 2009, accessed November 3, 2011, http://articles.sfgate.com/2009-01-11/bay-area/17195664_1_port-costa-hotel-concierge-hotel-s-innards/2.
5. Murdock, Port Costa 1879-1941, 23.
- the wharf, the Solano and the railroad tracks in the 1880's, from Port Costa 1879-1941, 7.
- the exterior of the Warehouse Cafe by Robert Hurly, found at http://my.opera.com/rfhurley/albums/show.dml?id=651052.
-all other pictures by the author on his iPhone. I promise to start using some apps that will make up for some of my poor photography skills.