Blast from Brisbane’s Past

By: MADISON DAVIS, President/CEO, Brisbane Chamber,madison@brisbanechamber.org, 415-467-7283

The following is an article from The Bee-Democrat, written on August 15th 1974.
In the days of “Little Reno”
By: Dorothy Radoff
The Wheel of Fortune went spinning around Brisbane in 1935. Commuters found it embarrassing to hop off the Greyhounds. “All out for Little Reno!” Shouted the bus drivers.
The name was new. Our reputation as a gambling area was not. One year after the 1906 earthquake a whole lot of shaking still went on in the upstairs of a county-line saloon. A police raid of the “dance hall” netted two “dance-hall girls,” twenty-five males, several pairs of still-warm dice and a roulette wheel.
A decade or so later the gambling fever wheeled down the road to “Beefsteak Bill’s” (now the Safeway parking lot). Two of our pioneers, Ted Linde and Delbert Sweet, describe the saloon keeper as “fat and jolly.” He sported a handle-bar mustache and wore a black Stetson hat. Draped across his beer-barrel belly was a gold watch chain from which a couple of gold nuggets dangled. Puffing on a cigar, the colorful character whizzed around the bumpy dirt roads in a little ole Tin Lizzy which he used during the first World War to bus workers from the county line to the South San Francisco shipyards.
At “Beefsteak Bill’s” you could eat, drink, bet on the cock fights and share a few hearty laughs with the genial owner. Old-timers recall the time a couple of the would-be bandits over-estimated his easygoingness. Up from behind the bar leaped “Beefsteak Bill”-with a six-shooter.
During the roaring twenties a rickety old barn in back of the historical Seven Mile House was the scene of a Chinese gambling den. One night in 1922 Lady Luck deserted the players. Gunmen robbed them of six-thousand dollars and spun down the road in a red Stutz racing car.
Things began spinning around in the main part of Brisbane thirteen years later. County officials hit the jackpot early in 1935 when they raided three “road-houses” and found the cherries, plums, and lemons still whirling on the slot machines. While the proprietors faced gambling charges in Redwood City, the law’s curiosity became aroused by an obscure, grey building tucked in the pocket of a sidehill opposite the Pacific Bone Coal and Fertilizer Co. (the little red brick office of the old “boneyard” still stands, located behind the Bayshore Sanitary District in Brisbane Industrial Park). Sheriff McGrath found the heavy doors securely barred with electrical locks. “Pull the light switch!” he barked to his deputies. The gamblers dashed out. The posse dashed in. They arrested three people and carted away fifty-dollars, a set of dominoes and a fan-tan outfit as evidence.
But the biggest Chinese gambling house ever operated in the county was uncovered several months later when police raided a “truck checking station” one mile north of Brisbane on the Bayshore Highway. Quicker than the “lookout” man could yell, “Cops!” The long arm of the law reached out and nabbed him. Then- a la Carrie Nation- the Lawmen swung their sledge hammers, smashed doors & windows and charged in. That night the jail bulged with eighteen gamekeepers and eighty “visitors.”
Meanwhile, back on the main street of our little village, volunteer firemen rushed in where lawmen feared to treat. For several hours on the balmy June evening hundreds of suspicious citizens had milled around a hall rented by the Voters League (now the Hillside Pharmacy) and watched lines of people slink into the building. After county officials failed to take decisive action, an angry resident buzzed the Fire Department.
“There’s a fire inside the old Voters League Hall,” a male voice cried. “Hurry if you want to save the place!”
Clinking and clanging their way to the scene, the fireman bounded from their new truck and pounded on the hall’s locked doors. They received no answer. That didn’t stop our ingenious volunteers. They scrambled atop the roof and sprayed a torrential stream of water from a high-pressure hose down the ventilator. Doors flew open. Windows shattered. Out through the openings poured a deluge of water, two-hundred people, and the soggy remnants of fan-tan, pi-gow, chuck-a-luck and lottery games.
“Wassamatter with you guys?” A drenched gambler gurgled. “We were just having a dancing party!”
Rumors began floating around town the next day. Some folks thought the Voters League had sub-rented the hall to the gamblers. The League’s president heatedly denied the charges. “Threats have been made against me and I demand an immediate investigation by the District Attorney.”
At this point, the Enterprise got into the act. “The picturesque community of Brisbane,” it editorialized, “which dots the northern slope of San Bruno Mountain with homes in as charming a natural setting as there is, has suffered untold woes from the adverse publicity. There is only one way to defeat a gambling outfit with enough money to buy its way in. That method was adopted by the Brisbane citizens themselves who used large straws of water to drive the gamblers forth. May they prosper!”
But neither streams, nor fines, nor raids, nor gloom of jail could stay these gamblers from their appointed rounds. Many a year rolled by before the Wheel of Fortune stopped spinning in Little Reno.