The San Diego Union-Tribune • Wednesday, June 5,2002


Earl Forsythe, 91; his gold hunt ended with a silver lining

by: Jack Williams


EARL FORSYTHE left his native Washington state in 1934 to search for gold in Alaska. Instead, he wound up finding silver dollars on the sawdust floor of his Juneau saloon.

Fifteen years after nearly starving as a prospector on a remote Alaskan island, Mr. Forsythe founded what would become a landmark bar and an enduring tourist magnet: the Red Dog Saloon. Customers, he discovered, often would drop a silver dollar or other change into the sawdust on the floor, rarely bothering to look for it. “We raked the sawdust at night to clean it up, and often raked up cash, some -times as much as $30 or $40,” he wrote several decades later in Alaskan South-easter magazine.

                    A .sign in the Red Dog Saloon, Juneau, Alaska, reads:

                    “If our food, drinks and service aren’t up to your standards,

                    please lower your standards.”     Thank You.

—contributed by: PAUL M. ALLEN

Although it wasn’t exactly striking gold, the saloon business provided a mother lode of memories for Mr. Forsythe, who died of congestive heart failure May 16, 2002 at his home near lake Jennings. He was 91years young. It was while honeymooning in New York, at the time of the 1949 World Series, that he and his bride, Thelma, visited a Gay Nineties style bar that sparked the idea for their saloon. Returning to Juneau, where he played shortstop in a city baseball league, Mr. Forsythe built a home on a five-acre homestead and converted Bailey’s Bar into the Red Dog Saloon ‘When we opened on Dec. I, 1949, they were lined up for three blocks, waiting to get inside those swinging doors,” he wrote.  Adding to the establishment’s rustic ambience, Mr. Forsythe hung his collection of rifles and shotguns on spruce logs behind the bar. He commissioned paintings for the upper walls and outfitted his bartenders in derby hats and vests, with red garters on their sleeves.

Well-lubricated patrons sometimes gold painted prunes and raisins strung across the waiters’ vests for gold nuggets. Once, he recalled, a tipsy tourists paid a bartender $300 for one of the artificial nuggets. When the patron showed up sober with a police officer in tow the next day, he was given his $300 back.

After pearly two years of operating what became known as the world famous Red Dog Saloon Mr. Forsythe left Alaska for warmer climes. Under succeeding owners, the saloon has remained somewhat of a Juneau institution, even retaining:

its sawdust floors.

Such Alaskan memorabilia as currency signed by miners and Wyatt Earp’s gun can be found on its walls, along with trophy wildlife mounts, historical posters and photographs. One of the photos is of Mr. Forsythe and his wife.

After moving to San Diego County in 1951, Mr. Fórsythe opened a mortgage company and specialized in residential and commercial real estate. This very successful operation was then sold to the three “Letson Brothers” in 1968.

While raising his family in East County, he coached Little League baseball and Pop Warner football and played baseball in an over-40 league. He also opened T&F Stables at Tijuana’s Agua Caliente race-track in the 1950s and raced thoroughbreds for about a decade. One of his horses, Lettuce Jim, broke a leg on a muddy course at Santa Anita and had to be destroyed, said Cyndi Forsythe, Mr. Forsythe’s


He also bought a former Santa Anita racehorse, Tayport, for Cyndi Forsythe to ride recreationallv, keeping it at a cattle-and-horse ranch that he owned in Lakeside until 1966.

The son of a coal miner, Mr. Forsythe was born in Cleelum, Wash. As a youth, he developed a passion for hunting, fishing and baseball.

While living in Tacoma, Wash., he decided to stake his claim for Alaskan gold. Once, in the company of three fellow prospectors on Lituya Bay, he was so very desperate for food he hocked his rifle. Later, near starvation and unable to find gold, Mr. Forsythe was rescued from the bay by a Navy pilot, Cyndli Forsythe said.

Mr. Forsythe continued to make his home in Alaska after the aborted search for gold. And, while working in the gold mines of Juneau, he excelled at semi-professional baseball.

In 1948, he took a job with the Fish and Game Department in Alaska, inspecting lakes to determine the quantity and quality of fish. “They provided him with a 42-foot boat and paid him to fish,” Cyndi Forsythe said. “He later referred to it as his ‘most enjoyable job.’”

Survivors include his wife, Thelma; daughters, Sondra Gordiner of Carlsbad and Cyndi Forsythe of Lakeside; Sons, Richard of Murrieta and Wil11am of Encinitas; 10 grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.

A celebration of life is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at the Lake Jennings Estates Mobile Home clubhouse, Lakeside. Donations are suggested to Vitas Hospice, 8880 Rio San Diego Drive, No. 950, San Diego, CA 92108.

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