SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

After 50 Years, The Shamrock's Luck Finally Ran Out



November 15, 2006

Ketchikan, Alaska - Taxes helped spell the death of one Ketchikan's most infamous watering holes in the early 1980s, but not without a little a help from undercover cops, religious leaders and a "Modern Day Queen of the Nile."

The Shamrock Bar had a nearly 50 year history in the First City, most of it uncontroversial.

The bar began operating openly in the mid 1930s after the repeal of prohibition, but likely had been a Stedman Street speakeasy in earlier years. By the late 1960s, though, it was faced with economic problems.

The fishing industry which had supported the bar (at one point it had a sign over the doorway noting that "The World's Greatest Fishermen" were its patrons) for many years was on the wane, particularly in the Thomas Basin area as much of the fleet was relocating to the expanding Bar Harbor area.

jpg Shamrock's bar

The Shamrock's bar .. date unknown.
Photo courtesy Ketchikan Museums

The timber industry was growing, but it seemed that many of the timber "tramps" who came to town on the weekends and for breaks favored the bars along Front Street and elsewhere in town. The bars along Stedman Street were finding it harder to make a go of it.

The Shamrock needed an "attraction" to compete with nearly 30 other bars in the community. It decided to hire strippers, or exotic dancers as they were called.

The change was immediate as the Shamrock went from being a quiet fisherman's bar to a more raucous "party" establishment.

But along with an image change the exotic dancers brought increased scrutiny from local officials. Bar fights - and police calls - increased. Complaints were made about noise and activity spilling out onto Stedman Street and the hillside behind. Prostitution - and other unsavory acts - were also alleged.

By the mid 1970s, local officials were concerned enough about "prostitution" that they threatened to protest the Shamrock's liquor license if it didn't rein in dancers' "extracurricular" activities.

It was then that the "Queen of the Nile" arrived on the scene.

Not much it known about where Cleopatra Ross came from, or where she went after she left the Shamrock. She was hired for nine weeks to appear as the "feature topless stripper" at the Shamrock beginning on September 22, 1976.

But even a "feature" dancer didn't get much of a "stage" at the Shamrock.

Even by Ketchikan standards, the Shamrock was a dark, narrow bar. The building was barely 25 feet wide and went back some 60 feet toward the hillside. It was next to the New York Hotel which had been vacant for many years.

The bar ran down the left side of the room and had an unusual trough between the foot of the bar and the bar stools. Supposedly the trough was to help drain spilled alcohol from the floor, but local legend was that it sometimes served as a urinal for patrons too tired, or too drunk, to go to the restrooms.

On the right side of the room was the "stage" which was about 8 feet wide. The stage was generally bare wood with no paint or curtains. At times there was a satin backdrop, but sometimes there was just the bare wall. There were a couple of plastic stage "lights" clipped on to the edge of stage and the wall.

But what the Shamrock lacked in "amenities" it made up for in audience. It was not unusual for 50 to 100 patrons to pack the tiny bar each night making it one of the most popular night spots in town.

Cleopatra Ross' time as a "feature topless stripper" at the Shamrock lasted just three weeks

Ross was fired for engaging in an act of prostitution, not at the Shamrock but in her apartment.

She sued and the case went all the way to the Alaska Supreme Court. By the time the court handed down its ruling in May of 1981, the Shamrock was already in its death throes.

Ross sued the Shamrock for breach of her employment contract because it had fired her, allegedly, on the orders of the Ketchikan District Attorney. Ross claimed in her suit that her activities outside the Shamrock were outside the purview of the bar and that it had no cause to terminate her contract.

Shamrock Bar owner John Conway contended that he was justified in firing Ross because although "prostitution" was not forbidden by the employment contract, Ross had "breached the implied term of every employment contract that the employee will do nothing which could tend to injure the employer's business interests." according to court documents. By "soliciting" and bringing down the potential wrath of the DA and city police, Conway said, Ross had materially "hurt" the Shamrock.

The District Court and the Superior Court sided with Ross and so did the state Supreme Court by a 5-2 margin.

"Ross's prostitution was unrelated to Conway's business" wrote Senior Justice John Dimond for the majority. " She did not solicit any of the Shamrock's customers. Her single act of prostitution involved a gentleman she met apart from the Shamrock Bar. Ross's encounter with this gentleman occurred at her own premises and during the hours she was not working for Conway. In short, there was nothing to connect Ross's act of prostitution with her employment at the Shamrock Bar. The situation brought about by the district attorney's request may have been a difficult one for Conway, but Conway could hardly have expected to operate a topless bar without encountering some difficulties similar to this."

The court ordered that Ross be awarded the $1,975.52 for the remaining six weeks of her contract.

But Chief Justice Jay Rabinowitz sharply disagreed and wrote a stinging dissent.

."I share with the majority some sympathy for Cleopatra Ross's position here; the Shamrock's objections to her exploitation of her body for financial gain ring a trifle hollow, in light of its own clear intent to do the same," Rabinowitz wrote. " My conclusion that Cleopatra Ross cannot recover is not, however, based on the moral reprehensibility of her conduct. Indeed, assuming the applicability of a moral litmus, she places a distant second to the Shamrock. The Shamrock is a local tavern in Ketchikan, of the genre that constantly treads the fine line between mere poor taste and outright illegality."

Continuing on, Rabinowitz said that he believed Ross's lawsuit should have been directed at local officials rather than her employer.

"Her conduct must be coupled with that of the district attorney who, although the record contains no evidence that he attempted to convict this latter-day Queen of the Nile through proper channels took it upon himself to rid Ketchikan of Ms. Ross by applying pressure on the hapless Conway, Inc., d/b/a the Shamrock." Rabinowitz wrote. "This venerable institution was, like virtually all the characters in this drama, caught in a compromising position."

Rabinowitz was joined his dissent by Associate Justice Warren Matthews. Sort of.

"Because I agree with the legal analysis set forth in the dissenting opinion of Chief Justice Rabinowitz, I would reverse the judgment of the district court," Matthews wrote. " I do not, however, join in those portions of that opinion which characterize the moral quality of the acts of the various participants involved in this case."

The Cleopatra Ross case focused more attention on the Shamrock at a time when it was already under the microscope from local officials. Concerns about the dancers "extra-curricular" activities had caused the bar to stop offering "rooms" above the bar for out-of town dancers to use.

The bar was also restricting how the dancers interacted with the customers, putting limits on lap dances and other acts with the customers that had been standard fare at the Shamrock for years, particularly in the hours between midnight and 5 a.m.

Officially, the Shamrock had been walking a very tight rope for many years and it was about to slip off.

"The Shamrock's attitude towards its "girls" (remained) somewhat schizophrenic,", the Supreme Court documents noted. "On the one hand, it clearly wanted to hold out to its customers the pleasurable prospect of following in (the gentleman who allegedly paid Ross for sex) footsteps, and thus such regulations as: 'Girls are expected to mix with all the customers, not to sit all together at one table,' 'Keep your boy friends out of the club', and 'Girls must dance topless for one song out of each three song-set.' On the other hand, it is also clear that the Shamrock intended its customers' reaches to exceed their grasps, and thus: 'No leaving the bar with men' and 'No men will be allowed in the living quarters.' As the superior court noted, 'As best I can interpret it, the dancers are required to tease but are not expected to connect.'"

Four months after the Supreme Court verdict, the city hired three undercover police officers from San Francisco and Sitka. Andy Balmy, Ronald Kern and Robert Hernandez were on a mission to "locate and identify" the city's drug dealers, according to a later story in the February 13, 1982 Ketchikan Daily News.

"Although the officers made the rounds of many Ketchikan bars, the Shamrock was found to be "a hot spot" where 'everybody had something to sell," Hernandez testified later in court, according to the Daily News. "He further described the Shamrock as 'a common marketplace' and a place where there were 'a lot of drugs to be exchanged.'"

On the night of October 16, 1981, city police raided the Newtown Liquor Store, the Shamrock and several private residences. The Shamrock was packed when police entered the building at 9 pm and between 50 and 75 patrons were detained and searched. Seven bar patrons and one employee were arrested on drug possession charges. Officers confiscated 20 grams of cocaine and 10 "baggies" of marijuana.

Within a couple of weeks, one of the bar patrons who was not charged with a crime, Kevin Horan, sued the city for more than $550,000, alleging his civil rights were violated because he was detained and forced to submit to a search without a warrant or any probable cause. Eventually seven other bar patrons joined the suit which was heard in federal district court.

In November of 1984, a federal judge ruled that the patrons rights had been violated by the search. The city then offered each of the plaintiffs $2,000 to settle the case, but they declined and it went to trial on January 8, 1985.

After a three day trial, the jury found for the plaintiffs, but only awarded them $6,502 each. Both the city and the plaintiffs indicated they planned to appeal and negotiations took place for the next three months.

In April, the federal judge ruled that the city was also responsible for nearly $50,000 in plaintiff attorney fees and both sides came to an agreement that the city would pay approximately $100,000 to the plaintiffs and their attorneys.

By then the Shamrock had closed, for good.

In November of 1981, pressure increased on the Shamrock. The city was looking at liquor license renewals - which are usually up at the end of each year. In early November, a group of local ministers led primarily by Rev. Arne Halvarson of the Clover Pass Community Church went before the council to protest the Shamrock's liquor license.

Halvarson noted that the bar had a sign calling itself the "Chapel by the Sea" and that sign and other activities taking place in the bar were an "affront to the community and an affront to God," according to a story in the Nov. 10, 1981 Ketchikan Daily News.

Rev. Clarence Cooper agreed.

"We should all get together in common cause to fight for what's good for Ketchikan," Cooper told the City Council, according to the Daily News.

But some other members of the community spoke in favor of the license.

"One bar isn't any more a haven for drugs than any other bar," Rudy McGilvray told the Council.

Shamrock Bar manager Hoss Amann told the Council that the "chapel" sign was a long running joke at the bar dating back to a previous manager.

"It's not to be taken seriously," Amann said, according to the Daily News. "It's like when the girls lived upstairs and it was called the 'Shamrock Penthouse' that overlooked the Ketchikan Yacht Club."

The issue dominated the public discussion at additional City Council meetings in December. It finally came up to a vote on January 7, 1982.

Prior to the meeting the city council received numerous letters protesting the license renewal on such grounds as "flagrant indecencies," "excessive unruliness" and "immoral and wicked type of entertainment" according to a story in the Jan. 7 Daily News.

That night a crowd of more than 100 people jammed the council chambers and nearly all rose when asked to show they were opposed to the renewal. A statement was read from the Ketchikan Ministerial Association saying the association did not oppose the bar on "moral" grounds, but opposed it for the negative effect it was allegedly having on Ketchikan "family relationships."

Amann also spoke at the meeting.

"This has been a railroad job by the churches and Ketchikan Families in Action," Amann said, according to the Daily News. "There are no charges against the Shamrock. It's like fascism coming down."

The council then voted 6-1 to oppose the license renewal application to the Alaska Beverage Control Board.

Councilman Chuck Freeman said he didn't oppose the "activities" at the bar, but he was against the renewal because the bar was nearly $6,000 behind on its taxes.

Councilman Hank Prentiss said the issue was how the bar conducted its business.

"Most people come to Ketchikan because they like the lifestyle," Prentiss said, adding that others want to bring dope and prostitution and change Ketchikan's lifestyle. "If they don't like our lifestyle, they can leave."

Councilman Norman Dupre was the only councilmember to vote in favor of renewal. He first noted that the Shamrock was being singled out for its high number of police calls but that the Totem and Marine bars had similarly high numbers of calls and were not being penalized.

"I wasn't elected as arbitrator of the public morals," Dupre said. "I will vote to pave streets, but I won't pave the way to righteousness."

Interestingly enough, the Shamrock found support from the Ketchikan Daily News which editorialized against the council taking action against a single bar.

"It was obvious months ago that the Shamrock was the main target of the city's conservative establishment." the Daily News editorialized on January 8, 1982. "And it is obvious that the council is powerless to oppose the wishes of the those conservatives that rank right up there with motherhood and apple pieIn the Shamrock's case if you don't support 'cleaning up' Ketchikan you are a moral degenerate. All of this takes place in a town which is eager to shuttle its hordes of tourists to Dolly's House, a former house of prostitution that is the closest thing we have to a local shrine."

The Daily News went on say that if the city was serious about dealing with drug and alcohol abuse it needed to put more effort into enforcing laws city wide and not just on select businesses.

"Selective enforcement is both immoral and dangerous to a free society, and we are sad that the city council has focused on the closure of the Shamrock as a solution to the community's ills, " The paper editorialized. "We hope the council, if is truly concerned with making Ketchikan a better place to live will examine a little deeper the causes and consequences of its actions. Then we might be able to get at the root of our problems, instead of just pruning the branches."

Although the council voted to protest the license renewal on January 7, 1982, it took almost exactly a year for the state ABC board to agree.

On January 4, 1983, a hearing officer for the state ABC recommended the liquor license be revoked after a hearing late in November of 1982. Greg Murphy's report found that the bar "knowingly and willingly" violated state alcohol laws and that the bar was a "resort" for drug use and drug sales.

Murphy did side with the bar on one point. He found that allegations of "prostitution" or "moral turpitude" at the bar were unfounded.

The ABC board met on January 20 and ordered the bar shuttered by January 24th. The Shamrock got a restraining order in Anchorage to allow it to remain open for at least 10 more days while its appeal was processing.

On February 3 - the day before the restraining order was to expire - Superior Court Judge Douglas Serdahely delayed the closure to decide on whether to allow a preliminary injuction to replace the temporary one. The preliminary injuction would have allowed the bar to stay open indefinitely while a separate bankruptcy case continued through the courts. Bar manager Amann said the bar needed to stay open in order to make enough money to finance its appeal.

But on February 19, 1983, the Shamrock Bar's luck finally ran out when Serdahely decided not to grant the preliminary injuction. Serdahely's order came down early in the afternoon and Amann said he wouldn't close the bar until he received a copy of the order which was then flown down from Juneau.

A small group of patrons and reporters gathered at the bar to await the arrival of the order.

The state had said it would deliver the order at 3 pm, but that hour passed. When 4 pm passed without the arrival of the state officials, it began to appear like the Shamrock might have one last - brief - reprieve.

"If they don't close us today, we're going to have the biggest, wildest party you ever saw tonight," Amann announced to the gathering.

At 5:30 pm, the state officials and the police arrived and closed the Shamrock.

Although Amann mentioned several options for eventually "reopening" the Shamrock, no additional attempts were made to restart the bar.

The Shamrock building sat vacant for nearly three years. It was damaged by fire and demolished by the city on January 30, 1986.

Twenty years later it remains a small parking lot on Stedman Street.


The author would like to thank Mary Guss, Bev Zaugg, Doreen Smith, Richard Van Cleave and June Allen for their help with this story.

Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2006

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