Alehouse Block Building History

The History of the American Block Building, Home to the Auburn Alehouse Since 2007

The Auburn Alehouse occupies one of the most historically significant structures in Auburn, and, arguably, in all of Placer County. The need to serve as a custodian of such a significant building was a driving force during renovation, as was an intense sensitivity to maintaining as much of the original fabric and patina as possible.

Construction of the building first known as the “American Block” was completed in 1856, in the aftermath of a horrific blaze in 1855 in what has long been referred to as “Old Town” and “Lower Town.” Home to the American Hotel, the building was for decades the center of social activity in Auburn as well as what was considered at the time, a luxury accommodation.

What follows is a chronology of important events in the history of this venerable structure. . .recognizing that most of the significant events occurred in the 19th century:

June 9, 1855: A huge blaze swept through the Auburn Ravine, a transformed gold mining site, starting below the Methodist Church and consuming some 80 structures valued at more than $200,000. Among the buildings destroyed were the Empire Hotel, the Orleans Hotel, Kinzie’s Drug Store, Keehner’s Bakery, Stephens’ Livery Stable and the office of Placer Press. Also lost was Diana Bowling Saloon, from whose ashes would rise the American Hotel, future home to both the Shanghai Restaurant & Bar and the Auburn Alehouse.

The fire started at 2 p.m. and the blaze was extinguished in less than 90 minutes. Said the Placer Herald: “The town has gone, what of that! In twelve months we will have a prettier and much better one.” (PH)

September 22, 1855: “Mr. Stevens (note: this is actually George H. Stephens) is also about to build a large brick edifice on the site of the old Diana Bowling Saloon, which is to be 40 feet front and 112 feet deep. The first story intended for a billiard saloon, and the upper story for a theatre. It is the intention of the builder to make it the most handsome building in the place.

“Auburn may now be considered as well secured from a general conflagration in future. Many improvements have been made, numerous brick buildings erected, and our streets are now being filled and graded—by winter we shall have a more pleasant town than ever before. ‘Loveliest village.’” (PH)

Instead of a bowling saloon and theater, a new hotel would soon be constructed—The American Block building housing the American Hotel.

March 1, 1856: The Placer Herald reports that George Stephens builds the American Hotel, with first floor bar and dining room, second floor parlors and 16 sleeping rooms, plus a rear frame addition to be used as a kitchen. The hotel would pass through Stephens’ hands many times in the future.

June 6, 1856: The death sentence of convicted murderer James Freeland was fulfilled on the plaza when he was hung directly in front of the American Hotel, an execution witnessed by some 3,000 people. His body was left hanging for almost a half hour before it was taken down. (From “Images of America—Auburn” by Arthur Sommers.)

January 8, 1858: “January ball at American Hotel. The Auburn Cotillion Ban was out in full force and gave much satisfaction to the dancers by the superiority and appropriateness of their music.” (PH)

October 15, 1859: In another blaze that swept through Lower Town, the American Hotel suffered $5,000 in damages. It was repaired and reopened in 1860.

Throughout the last half of the 19th century: The American Hotel was a social center for a fledgling community on the edge of civilization that enjoyed rapid growth early due first to the discovery of gold and then the construction of the transcontinental railroad. These two events drew thousands of people to the region, but then expansion slowed dramatically. In those boom years and beyond, what is now Old Town was a raucous place, home to both gambling dens and “sporting clubs.” Brewery Lane was the town’s red light district, and stories abound of opium dens below buildings and in the ravine. Most of the “history” is oral with little actual documentation of events except for newspaper reports. No doubt, though, for a time, Auburn was a hot spot in the West.

October 14, 1882: “The American Hotel was sold by Mr. F. Guobayto to Mr. J.R. Wills and Frank Tull, both old residents of Auburn. Mr. Guobayto had owned the American Hotel for about a year and had renovated it from top to bottom.” (PH)

May 4, 1895: “George West of Westville has bought American Hotel—will take over about May 15—ran hospitable hotel.” (PH)

1896: This is the year purported to be the founding of the Yue family’s business in the American Block Building, ultimately called the Shanghai Restaurant & Bar. The business—locally acknowledged as California’s oldest restaurant and liquor license operating continuously in the same location—may have been created in that year, but based on public records and a short family history left by Annie Yue, daughter of Shanghai founder Charlie Yue, it likely was in a nearby structure, not in the American Block building. Here’s why:

  • In her family history, Annie Yue said that her parents were married in 1903, and noted: “After their marriage, mother and father settled in Auburn, where father and some partners operated a Chinese supply store and food outlet. Later, he became a partner in the legendary Shanghai Restaurant & Bar.” (Emphasis added. Note: This quote was published in Auburn, A Century of Memories).
  • Two photos from the turn of the century In Auburn Images published in 2004 by the Placer County Historical Society (pages 11 and 25), indicate the building was occupied by others.
  • In 1899 the American Hotel was owned by George West.
  • In 1905, after the American Hotel burns for a third time, the shell was purchased by Mr. F.S. Roumage and Mr. L.L. Chamberlain. In 1906 Placer Hardware occupied the building; there is no specific public record of when the Shanghai opened in the American Block.S

July 29, 1905: Another devastating fire destroys much of Old Town, this one leveling everything between the City Hall building (actually, it was never used as a public building; it was occupied by Stafford’s Furniture Store and Hancock’s Hardware Store. Remnants of the building now form three walls of Bootlegger’s restaurant). Losses in Old Town were estimated at $100,000. As described in the following excerpts from a newspaper account, the brick construction of the American Hotel was instrumental in blocking the path of the fire and further devastation:

“The destruction of the entire lower town was ultimately saved by the American Hotel. The walls of this historic building will stand, apparently little worse for wear. It was built in the ‘50s and twice before has saved the town. Time had warped some of the iron window shutters, so they could not be tightly closed, and in this way the flames crept in from the burning hay barn alongside.

“North of the City Hall everything was burned up to and including the American Hotel, including the old Empire Hotel, Crosby’s livery stable and the saloon building belonging to Mrs. George Keehner.

“Once the flames got inside the American Hotel they were ‘bottled up,’ and if the walls stood, the rest of the town was safe. This they did. . .” (PH)

August 5, 1905: The Placer Herald headline was “Fire Aftermath,” and a short piece contained this notice: “The old American Hotel has been sold by Dan Russell of Colfax to Messrs. F. S. Roumage and L.L. Chamberlain. The price paid was $1,000. Whether they bought it on a ‘spec’ or whether it will be the future home of the Placer Hardware Co. is only conjecture.”

A more detailed report on the hotel followed: “The south side of the American Hotel wall fell in Monday night, and the front was blow down with powder Tuesday. A portion of the Snowden building was also taken down. The ruined district certainly looks like desolation.”

The new owners . . .had contemplated tearing the walls down part way, and making a one-story store building out of it. What they will do now is not settled. All day Monday Oscar Glover worked around the hotel walls cleaning out the debris, and he intended on Tuesday to go at it again, with the view of mining some of the ground, which undoubtedly has never been worked.

“The American Hotel was built over fifty years ago, the contract price being $60,000. It was certainly an old landmark, and many a grand ball and supper, and many a good time was had there in the olden days. Some say the bricks were made on Rich Flat near Auburn, and must certainly be rich in gold; others say the bricks were sent up from San Francisco.” (PH)

The building was so badly damaged as a result of the 1905 that the American Block was reconfigured as a one-story structure. If you look closely on the side of the building, you can see the outline in brick where windows were formerly located.

Prohibition Years: During the years of federally mandated national abstinence—from 1918 to 1934—the Shanghai was out of the liquor business like every other bar in the country. Presumably, the restaurant continued to serve food during these years.

The Last Quarter of the 20th Century: Just about every resident who is a native of Auburn has fond memories of the Shanghai. It was a center of entertainment frequented by people of all economic backgrounds, from lawyers and judges to tradespeople. It was a place for everyone to celebrate, drown their sorrows and to just hang out. It was the quintessential nightspot for enjoying dancing to live music. It was a favorite watering hole for both motorcycle clubs and tourists alike.

The Shanghai was famous for hosting an annual Fourth of July celebration, complete with greased pole for climbing competitions for children, and it organized an annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade, typically short but fun. It seems that the Shanghai was always a great place to meet or end the evening.

November 13, 1994: Wilbert Jung Yue, eldest son of Shanghai founder Charlie Yue, dies at age 90. He held title to the American Block building, and ownership passed to his son, Mervin.

1995: The Disney movie company descends on the Plaza to film the movie “Phenomenon,” starring John Travolta, Kyra Sedgwick, Forest Whitaker and Robert Duvall. The Old Town Plaza is transformed into a movie set and the Shanghai is temporarily converted into a new watering hole called the Elkhorn bar. Travolta plays George Malley who is struck by a mysterious light, touching off an incredible facility to learn quickly. He uses his new powers for good; ultimately, it is revealed that the source of his new powers result from an inoperable brain tumor. Bummer.

July 3, 1996: Phenomenon is released and grosses more than $200 million internationally. The movie premieres the same day at the now-closed Auburn Cinema on Rt. 49.

March, 1999: The Shanghai Restaurant & Bar is named “Business of the Year” by the Auburn Chamber of Commerce.

March 1, 2002: Shanghai co-owner Richard Yue receives the prestigious McCann Award from the Auburn Journal. Named in honor of the paper’s former business manager, Vernon “Mr. Auburn” McCann, the award recognizes Auburnites who have made vast contributions to the community.

June 6, 2005: Annie Yue, daughter of Shanghai founder Charlie Yue, passes away at age 93, more evidence of the incredible longevity of the family.

June 19, 2005: The Shanghai Restaurant & Bar rings “Last Call” when the business closes after more than 100 years of operation. A long-simmering dispute between cousins lead to a schism that spelled the end of this fabled watering hole. Building owner Mervin Yue could not come to lease terms with his cousins, Shanghai owners Herb and Richard Yue, who during the following weekend, auctioned off much of the memorabilia collected over a century.

Oddly enough, the closure took place a month shy of the 100th anniversary of the 1905 fire that nearly destroyed the American Block building.

The building would sit empty for many months before Mervin Yue demolished the interior, reinforced the building and replaced the rotted floors with concrete, making way for a new tenant.

October 19, 2005: Some 14 fire trucks and 50 firefighters turn out in the early morning hours to fight another huge blaze that started in the Mercantile Building on Sacramento St. The Oz jewelry store and the building housing two restaurants—Awful Annies and Old Town Pizza—sustained heavy damage. Though the rear of the Shanghai—then vacant for nearly four months—was adjacent to the fire, it suffered no damage.

October 21, 2006: Brian and Lisa Ford sign a lease agreement and begin construction of the new Auburn Alehouse a few months later. Michael Kent Murphy of Auburn is selected as architect for the project.

May 30, 2007: Former co-owner of the Shanghai, Harry Yue, dies. His ambition was to live to be 90, and he died the day after achieving that goal. Along with his brother, Carl, Harry took over operations of the Shanghai Restaurant in 1946 from their father, Charlie. According to a report in the Auburn Journal, Harry was born in Auburn and was a leader in the Auburn Fire Department (after fires were extinguished, fire trucks would clog the Plaza as fireman refreshed themselves in the Shanghai). He turned the business over to his nephews Herb and Richard Yue in 1976.

June 15, 2007: The Auburn Alehouse officially opens in Old Town.

October 28, 2008: A reunion of cast members and extras from the filming of Phenomenon is held on the Plaza in front of the Auburn Alehouse. A commemorative plaque is embedded in the pavement with the inscription: “Phenomenon. . .Everything is on its way to somewhere. . .1995”. Alehouse Brewmaster Brian Ford creates a special brew to celebrate the event: Phenomenon Ale.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Melanie Barton, Museums Administrator for Placer County; Debbie Poulsen, Placer County Museums Archives & Research Center; and April McDonald-Loomis, City Historian of Auburn, CA. Their assistance in helping develop this chronology and locating photographs and other documents has been invaluable.