By Danny Crownover
There has always been gambling in Gadsden and probably always will be, as long as human nature remains what it is.
The first prohibition law forced upon Gadsden and Etowah County by a legislative act and without vote of the people was back in 1882. Some of the results that followed included the advent of blind tigers and its fellow traveler, the gambling house.
The blind tiger was something new and it difficult to handle, although the town had 21 volunteer policemen who carried badges and clubs. They served in frequent shifts, day and night, without pay.
There once was row of more than a dozen gambling, vice and drinking dens in the little community of Pulltight located on North 12th Street between Meighan Boulevard and Tuscaloosa Avenue between the N.C. & St. Louis Railroad and the Southern Railroad.
There was horse racing up and down the big road and card playing and crap shooting all around. Sunday school picnickers going to Sulphur Spring on what is now Mineral Avenue and Noccalula Falls sometimes carried an armed guard along.
Knife and pistol battles were common but there were few killings. There always was a way to relieve the drinking farmer of his wallet and money with loose women and slick gamblers in most houses.
All farmers coming from the western end of the Etowah County and from Blount and Marshall counties had to pass through Pulltight. It was the funnel for the highways to Attalla and Big and Little Wills Valley and also Lookout Mountain. There was no other way into Gadsden from a large section of Etowah County.
The old stagecoach road of Tuscaloosa Street skirted the north edge of the place and travelers along that route frequently stopped long enough to get tipsy and to be fleeced.
Close to where Gardner Street runs into 12th Street was a shallow pool of water that spread out over 12th Street. The pool was fed by the Gardner Spring near 10th Street. It was a tight pull for some farm wagons to get through that pool.
In 1887, Captain J.M. Elliott, Jr., and associates, began building a car works on the east side of 12th Street, right in the middle of Pulltight. The plant, which was called the Elliott Car Works (where the present Agricola Shopping Center is located), started operations in 1888. From then on, bootleggers, lewd women, and gamblers slowly moved out of the area.
Pulltight seems to have started back in the 1870s, shortly after the Civil War. It was said that Pulltight actually was run by one person, a sort of ancient Al Capone. There has never been anything like Pulltight in Etowah County. There was a time when the area was a constant source of fear on the part of lawful citizens. The area was a Hell’s Kitchen in the prohibition days of the 1880s and even before.
Later on, Gadsden had a mayor who wanted to drive out the gamblers and close the gambling houses, but he was by himself in the official family. He would stand across the street from one place and call attention of passersby to the large number of men going upstairs and ask them to listen to the clicking of dice.
There have been gambling dens in some of the big buildings in downtown Gadsden, and at one time many business houses openly operated slot machines. The machines were banned when it was found that school children were the best patrons of the one-armed bandits.
Local historian Will I. Martin stated that he personally knew most of the professional gamblers and gambling house operators in Gadsden for more than 60 years, all of whom died practically broke.
Back in the 1870s, Gadsden had one or more well-equipped gambling houses that operated openly. In the 1880s and 90s, there were some that were not so open, although they rarely were
interfered with by the authorities. There was a two-story wooden building back of the King Saloon on Broad Street, where the old Gadsden Hardware Store stands at 2nd and Broad streets that had a roulette wheel and other gambling machinery in its second story, the first story was being used by a bowling alley. It used to be said that poker games were held nightly in this old frame structure, and that everybody in town knew about them.
Chicken fights were held in the backyard of the gambling house, just across the street from the old Gadsden Times building located on Chestnut Street facing 4th Street. However, the premises were enclosed by a high board fence to screen such doings from the public.