by Bob Chessey

During the 1920’s Juarez was a bustling adult recreational destination flaunting legal alcohol, saloons, cabarets, legal prostitution, gambling, and musical entertainment in front of their American neighbors who were being deprived of alcoholic beverages by the federal legislation commonly known as “Prohibition”. And the biggest kid in this legendary border playground was Harry Nelson Shipley, the owner of the largest venue, who, due to his corpulent presence, affectionally was referred to as, “Big Kid.”

Though Shipley was a well-known and popular owner of a renowned Juarez bar during the 1920’s, today people familiar with that city’s rich legacy during Prohibition easily discuss two other celebrated Juarez bar owners, Harry Mitchell, of the Mint Bar, and Severo Gonzalez, of the Central Café, but at best may only recall that “Big Kid,” was the tall and portly proprietor of the longest bar in Juarez, and, next door, a spacious and successful cabaret, but know nothing about Shipley’s life before and after those halcyon days of Juarez saloons.

One explanation for Shipley having vanished down the memory hole is that, unlike Mitchell and Gonzalez, after repeal of Prohibition the “Big Kid” never opened another business. As a result, most people’s knowledge of Shipley is restricted to the photos on souvenir postcards of the large man from his famed saloon/cabaret, Big Kid’s Palace, on “Calle 16th de Septiembre”.

Despite Shipley being strongly identified with El Paso and Juarez during his life, the Big Kid was not from the southwest area. Harry Nelson Shipley was born in Carmi, Illinois on April 16, 1876, and entered the world as a veritable “Big Kid,” weighing a hefty 16 pounds at birth, and by six months of age rocked the scales at 48 pounds.i As an adult Shipley stood at a stout 6’4” and weighed in at 332 pounds.ii

Harry’s father, James H. Shipley, was a Civil War veteran of the Union Army’s 87th Infantry.iii Isadore Annette McAllister, Big Kid’s mother, was born in Carmi, Illinois, on January 26, 1843.iv The couple married May 28, 1873, in White County Illinois,v and had a daughter, Lulu two years before the birth of Harry. Nothing is known of Harry’s early childhood, however, several months after he turned 5 years of age tragedy struck the family on July 22, 1881, Harry’s father James died of unknown causes.vi

In 1884 Harry, Lulu, and his mother moved to Silver City, New Mexico, where Isadore earned her living as a seamstress.vii Isadore’s motivation to uproot her young family and move across country from Illinois to the “Land of Enchantment,” remains a mystery, but, in 1885 Harry, approximately 9-years-old, Lulu, and his widowed mother again pulled up stakes and relocated. Their new destination being El Paso, Texas;viii as before, the explanation or attraction for the relocation has been lost.

Upon arrival in the Sun City, Isadore set up a new seamstress business and enrolled Harry and Lulu in the Central School.ix

St. Charles Hotel

In 1887 a new hotel was constructed on the corner of the 300 block of S. El Paso Street and Overland Street, the iconic Merrick Building. The three-story structure in the heart of downtown housed a storefront on the first floor with the second and third stories occupied by the St. Charles Hotel; the hotel quickly became popular with prominent Mexican and American visitors. Hoping to improve the family’s financial standing, in early September 1894, Isadore picked up a pen, scratched her name on a lease presented by the building’s owners, Charles H. Deer and Joseph Magoffin, and became the proprietor of the St. Charles Hotel.x Isadore promptly began advertising the hotel and its amenities, boasting that the St. Charles was the, “only hotel in the city with (window) screens throughout, Electric Bells, Everything new and first-class.”xi Harry, 19 years-old in 1895, was appointed the hotel’s manager.xii In late February of 1896, Isadore advertised, “The cleanest rooms in the city,” but was firm that people with physical disabilities were not welcome guests, “No invalids solicited.”xiii

Early Employment

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the American Dream as, “the ideal that every citizen of the United States should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.” Possessing a deeply ingrained entrepreneurial streak, Harry Shipley was driven to fulfill the American dream and its inherent promise by constantly seeking his next business opportunity: at times he chased the dream in the US, often he crossed the international border and gave pursuit in Juarez, Mexico. Simply put, the Big Kid was a workaholic determined to make money, he just needed to discover how to make his fortune materialize.

The specific dates and locations of Shipley’s early employment can be elusive to pin down. Reminiscing with the El Paso Evening Post in 1928 about his work history as a young man, Harry recalled several jobs, including a three-day stint as a bell-hop at El Paso’s Grand Central Hotel, and later, while employed with the Street Car Company as a water boy, that he led the company’s first strike when he refused to continue working for a salary of only fifty cents a day.xiv


The members of the Fire Department were a collection of characters who were known and respected for their dedication to the job, and, during the down times at the station, equally dedicated toward fun; their escapades frequently covered in the city presses. During his years of service with the El Paso Fire Department Harry began receiving city-wide attention and recognition. Often in those articles, Harry was simply referred to as “Big Kid.”

Available information does not clarify if Shipley began as a volunteer or salaried personnel. Harry appears in the 1896-1897 El Paso City Directory as an “extra (janitor)” with the Fire Department. However, at the El Paso City Council meeting on August 17, 1895, the council accepted Fire Chief Powers recommendation for Harry Shipley as “extra man”.xv

A week and a half later Harry and the boys at the fire station garnered attention when they publicly released a petition to the Mayor of El Paso concerning Jimmy, the Fire Department’s burro. Jimmy had escaped from the station and been sent to the pound; their petition called for his immediate release. Sadly, Jimmy had a well-known drinking problem. When the donkey would slip away from the station he would trot along to several saloons, enter, and, what was described at the time as “singing for his supper,” keep braying until someone, to silence the beast, gave him a pitcher of beer. Jimmy would repeat the scenario saloon to saloon. The night of his impoundment the burro had become supersaturated on hustled pitchers of beer, passed out, and was remanded to the pound. The first name on the petition calling for Jimmy’s release, and the person who likely composed the plea, was “H. N. Shipley, extra, paid department.”xvi “Paid department” confirms that he now held a salaried position with the department, though it is possible he began service with the department as a volunteer.

Harry was ambitious and not reluctant about taking side jobs that some people consider menial positions, in January 1896 he acquired a second job at City Hall as a janitor. Additionally, Harry was also not hesitant to be outspoken. Believing that a judge was taking advantage of his custodial duties, Harry wrote a request to the City Council:

“Gentlemen; The justice court, J. H. Catlin presiding, is using the city hall for his courts. They scratch up the furniture and spit on the floor, which makes double the work for me cleaning council room and court room. I respectfully ask the council to request Mr. Catlin to pay me $5 per month for cleaning after his court.

H. N. Shipley, Janitor.”xvii

One Alderman participating in the meeting responded that, “if Mr. Shipley was sick of his job he could send in his resignation.”xviii However, Mayor Robert Campbell sided with Shipley, pointing out that nobody had authorized Justice Catlin to be holding court in the City Hall. The mayor agreed that $5 additional dollars a month was a fair request as the Justice would have had to pay more than that sum if he rented a room to hold his sessions.xix

Harry was likely determined to hold side jobs, such as the City Hall custodian, to earn extra cash because his mother was having difficulty making her lease payments on the St. Charles Hotel. On September 6, 1896, at the top of the classified section in the El Paso International Daily Times sat an ad placed by Isadore Shipley, “FOR SALE-Lease and furnishings of the St. Charles lodging house. The most elegantly furnished in the city. Situated in the business center of the city. Price reasonable. Address Mrs. I. A. Shipley, city.”xx In early October Charles Derre and Joseph Magoffin, the holders of the hotel’s lease, filed suit in the district court against Isadore for back payments of her lease.xxi

Isadore had no immediate luck passing the hotel’s lease to a new proprietor, but on October 9 the innkeeper would have been very determined to place the St. Charles hotel well behind her. That morning one of the guests, a young woman, was curling her hair when she accidently set fire to one of her room’s window curtains. Panicking, she screamed for help. Isadore heard the cry and raced to the room, realizing she had to deal immediately with the fire before the room, and then the hotel, was set ablaze. Isadore ran to the window, yanked the burning curtain down, and quickly extinguished it, but at the expense of burning both her hands.xxii

The trials of hotel ownership continued. Two weeks later, Friday, October 23, a young “tramp” about 19 years old, entered the hotel and attempted to persuade Isadore to let him have a bed for the night. The proprietress informed the young man that there were no vacant rooms, and he departed, only to return and scribble on a pad of paper, “I have no money; am deaf and dumb and want a bed tonight.”xxiii Isadore repeated that there were no vacancies and pretending to be deaf and mute was not going to sway her or change the situation. Becoming angry at again being denied a room for the night, the “young brute” swung at Isadore, who managed to dodge the brunt of the blow, and bolted to her room returning armed with a pistol and an attitude, and commenced to march the now much humbler thug down the stairs of the hotel at gunpoint and out into the street below.xxiv

Harry Shipley was decisive, self-confident, and assertive; the two October incidents prove that the fruit did not fall far from the tree.

After dispatching her assailant Isadore would have been primed to be finished with the hotel business. In early December Isadore succeeded in stepping away from the St. Charles Hotel and returning to dressmaking when she passed the lease to Mrs. Hubbard, of Clint, Texas.xxv Though the lease had been sold, the lawsuit filed by Deere and Magoffin lingered in the courts until the end of June, 1898, when the case for the collection of past due rent on the hotel was dismissed at plaintiff’s costs.xxvi


In April 1896 the directors of the El Paso Fire Department met, and with the acceptance of John Saunders’ resignation, the Big Kid received promotion to a position that was the envy of every young boy in the city. Shipley was assigned to be the “tillerman” for the Fire Department’s Hook and Ladder Company No. 1.xxvii The tillerman is the person who sits behind the extension ladder at the rear of a hook and ladder fire truck, and steers the back section to prevent the vehicle from jackknifing.

Shipley was a good fit with the department, during his tenure with the department a prized perk of the fireman’s job after combating a blaze, was returning to the firehouse, and finding a cold keg of beer waiting for the crew. In later years Harry nostalgically proselytized that firemen could never enjoy their job as much as during the era of fire trucks being pulled by a strong team of horses. His years as a fireman became a life-long source of pride.xxviii

A proud new acquisition at the Fire Department’s headquarters in early January 1897 received press attention. A recently installed sliding pole, a common feature in fire stations at the time, allowed the firemen to quickly slide from the second-floor dormitory to the first floor to don their protective gear, and begin hitching the team of horses to pull the wagon to the fire. The top of the pole was connected to the ceiling on the second story, through a circular hole in the floor of the second story, and secured on the floor of the first floor, where the fire trucks were stored.

However, there was a significant downside to the convenience of using the pole, as was proven by the two firemen demonstrating a rapid descent on the pole to a local reporter. One at a time the pair swiftly slid down the pole, hit the ground hard, and promptly landed on sick call with badly sprained ankles. One of the injured men, Jack O’Connors, was the pilot for the team of horses pulling the long hook and ladder wagon. During O’Connors’ recovery Shipley moved from the tillerman position in the rear of the wagon to the front of the vehicle in “driver’s” seat, proving that he possessed the necessary skills both to steer the rear section of the large hook and ladder truck, as well as to control a team of horses charging through the city streets to a fire.xxix

Courtesy of El Paso Public Library, Border Heritage Section

A second news story involving the fire department centered around the fire station dog, a tradition originating from firefighters use of horse drawn wagons. Dalmatians, recognized by their white coat and iconic black dots, were important to fire stations because the breed was said to be compatible with horses. When a fire alarm rang the dog’s responsibility was to leave the station with the fire fighters, run alongside the horses and clear the path from any threats, especially from other dogs wanting to harass the horses. The dogs’ duties, like that of the firemen, was a dangerous occupation.

The same day of the pole sliding ankle injuries, the fire department’s dog was accidently, but fatally, run over by the Hook and Ladder truckxxx. The driver of the truck was not named.

Having fallen in duty, the following day inside City Hall, beginning promptly at three in the afternoon, members of the fire department staged an elaborate public funeral for their beloved mascot. In front of the deceased’s closed coffin (box), covered in black cloth and trimmed with handles donated by the Caldwell Undertaking company, sentimental words were spoken on the departed’s virtue, followed by “Hark, from the tombs a doleful sound,” tenderly sung by the Big Kid and a fellow mourning fireman. The Daily Herald reported that in lieu of pennies placed over the eyes of the departed, three lumps of sugar had been carefully arranged on the mascot’s nose. Approximately fifty children, most of whom were carrying flowers, attended the memorial.

Announcing the conclusion of the memorial, and confusing many people downtown, the fire bell was tolled as Harry Shipley and the other pall bearers led the funeral cortege out of the building. The service culminated with the mascot’s interment in a lot west of city hall and the attending children solemnly dropping their flowers onto the fallen one’s grave.xxxi

When Harry Shipley was promoted to tillerman in April 1896, he drew a lesser salary than the drivers of the hose wagon and the engine wagon. The pay difference did not sit well with him, but on July 14, 1897, management remedied the disparity by upgrading his pay to an amount equal with the other drivers. The pay raise was much welcomed news as the approval was granted two days before Shipley and co-worker W. A. Mitchell’s planned week-long vacation at the Texas Gulf.xxxii

Perhaps the ankle injury convinced Jack O’Connors that he too needed rest and recuperation time. Shortly before the pair’s departure, O’Connors hustled up some last-minute vacation leave and boarded the Gulf bound train with Mitchell and Shipley.

One-week later Shipley and O’Connors, sunburned and exhausted, dragged themselves back to El Paso swearing to a reporter that the following year their vacation would be on “the snowcapped mountains of Alaska where they can eat ice cream and gather gold at one and the same time.”xxxiii

Inside the walls of the fire house teasing was a no holds barred sporting contest, and once Shipley had recovered from his vacation and resettled in the station the Big Kid became fair game to his fellow crew members. Early in the morning of August 23rd, Dan, the station’s black and tan terrier, crawled into bed with Harry. Sometime later a bored co-worker whistled for Dan, who scurried down from the upstairs bedroom. When the dog returned to Shipley’s bed Dan had a tobacco sack half full of Limburger cheese dangling under his chin. Annoyed by the smell, and unable to wake up Shipley, Dan bounced bed to bed hoping at least one sleeping crew member would be decent enough to wake up and remove the foul-smelling collar, only to be repeatedly pushed away. Eventually Dan returned to Shipley’s bed where the stench did not register in Harry’s consciousness until 4:30 am, when Big Kid was jolted awake and tossed the dog outside the bedroom door.

Shipley must have been a worthy opponent, as three weeks later the teasing upped its offensive olfactory game. The afternoon daily provided coverage of the station house action:“The men down at the fire department headquarters played a real mean trick on the ‘Big Kid last night. They rubbed his black and tan terrier, ‘Dan’ all over with limburger cheese and then sent the dog upstairs to where the kid was in bed…(t)here was a sudden and frantic waving of arms, a series of blasts from a pair of powerful lungs, a long concatenation of expletives in pretty much the entire family of Indio-European family of languages, and the dog went flying out into the middle of the room. The ‘Big Kid’ rose in his wrath and threatened to make a prime article of sausage of the first man he could detect misusing his dog in that way. Then he put the animal under the hose and spent a pleasant half hour soaping and cleaning and perfuming that pup. ‘The perpetrators of the outrage have not been discovered.’”xxxiv

Not all the firemen’s spare time was spent in horseplay. In October Shipley and Charlie Westbrook began studying how telegraphs worked and became interested enough to install a telegraph line in their firehouse. Calling themselves the Shipley & Westbrook Telegraph Company, the ambitious pair of telegraphers ran a line connecting the station’s downstairs telephone room to the second floor’s dormitory. The “Company” announced plans to extend their lines approximately one block to the residence of City Clerk W. T. Kitchens, to be followed by a connection with the home of J. J. Sullivan.xxxv Though Shipley’s desire to experiment with telegraph systems may have originated with the messages he fired off during his gulf coast vacation, his interest in electricity continued to maintain its grip for the rest of his life.

Not all of Shipley’s impulses and money-making schemes were frivolous or risk free. In September of 1897 Shipley and several friends, including co-worker W. A. Mitchell, decided that their collective path to riches was to seek out the root of fortunes—gold; not in the ore fields of Alaska but closer to home in the hills of Mexico. Fortunately, for reasons unknown, when the group set off Shipley did not travel south with his partners. Instead, along with one other member, he remained in El Paso.

One hundred miles south of Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, the expedition members joined with a second prospecting outfit. This large group soon encountered multiple parties along the trail who had turned back and discouraged the travelers from continuing because of “a gang of desperate white men and renegade Apaches” xxxvi lurking ahead. While traveling through a narrow canyon in the early afternoon of October 27, the party was ambushed by the desperados; but successfully held their ground in a forty-five-minute firefight before driving the raiding party away.

El Pasoan Gus Kline, shot in his right arm, was the only prospector wounded in the attack, an injury requiring him to return to El Paso for medical care. The rest of the party, uninjured, swore they were not dissuaded and planned to continue. Kline also expressed his determination to return and stake a claim.xxxvii Shipley scratched “prospector” off his career options.

A little over a year later, at the January 11, 1899 meeting of the Fire Department’s board of directors, newly appointed Fire Chief Frank Powers announced that he had accepted the resignation of tillerman Harry Shipley.

As Shipley was identified to be the assistant foreman of Julian engine company during the following December’s annual election of officers, the resignation was likely due to his having received a lateral transfer or promotion.xxxviii

Harry continued having influence among the ranks of the Fire Department, by October, 1900, Shipley was a member of the board of fire directors. In 1903, toward the end of his involvement with the El Paso Fire Department, when tillerman Ed Halverson lost his position in the department, Harry Shipley was appointed Halverson’s replacement.xxxix

As a young man seeking his niche, Shipley was constantly reinventing himself and appears to have experienced an epiphany- that he either wanted, or needed, to work for himself and not under the direct supervision of another person, and began opening his own businesses. This self-realization was likely the propellent driving his shift from a career in the public sector to the private sector.

The idea possibly sparked by his electric experiments at the Fire Department, on September 27, 1899, Shipley took his expanding interest in electricity and began road testing a transition to the private sector with his purchase of the El Paso Electrical and Bicycle Supply company at 303 North Kansas Street. By October 10 Shipley announced that he had relocated his fledgling enterprise to the corner of Overland and Santa Fe Street, 201 W. Overland Street. The freshly minted store front advertised that the company would continue working on bicycles and contracting on all types of electrical jobs with all work being personally supervised by Harry Shipley.xl However, it is unclear if Shipley did keep the bicycle section of the company, or if he phased it out, as future advertisements in the 1900 El Paso City Directory and after no longer mention selling or repairing bicycles.

Nonetheless, Harry was not quite ready to let go of a future in the public sector and gave working for the city of El Paso one more attempt. In the winter of 1904, Harry was hired by the El Paso Police Department. A February article in the El Paso Morning Times mentions that a woman experiencing a psychotic break had been arrested, and eventually was transferred from a jail cell to her apartment. H. N. Shipley was the officer assigned to watch the prisoner and prevent her from leaving. However, law enforcement did not appeal to him and after three months Harry resigned. Truly a workaholic, for the next four years Shipley, likely as a contractor, drove the mail wagon to meet incoming trains in addition to his electric business.xl

i “’BIG KID’ HAS MUCH TROUBLE IN SECURING RIGHT SIZED HAT,” El Paso Herald, February 19, 1927, p. 15; “IT’S A GIFT, Big Kid Maintains Huge Heft On One Meal Daily,” El Paso Herald, April 5, 1927; Harry Nelson Shipley Death Certificate.

ii El Paso Herald, April 5, 1927; Harry Nelson Shipley Death Certificate.

iii James H. Shipley, in the U.S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865; Illinois: Roster of Officers and Enlisted Men.

iv Isadore Annette Shipley Death Certificate, El Paso, Texas, 1919.

v James H. Shipley, in the Illinois, U.S., Compiled Marriages, 1851-1900; County Court Records, Film # 0977068-0977072.

vi Death Certificate; Personal correspondence with James Shipley (descendent), September 7,2023

vii Harry Nelson Shipley US Passport Application, November 16, 1917; New Mexico Territorial Census, 1885, data base with images, Family Search.

viii El Paso Herald, February 19, 1927.

ix El Paso City Directory, 1889, El Paso City Directory, 1892-1893; BIG KID ONCE HAD BELLHOP JOB IN PASO,” El Paso Evening Post, May 30, 1928, section 3, p. 7.

x “The New St. Charles,” El Paso Daily Times, September 9, 1894, p. 2; Leon Metz, “El Paso: Guided Through Time,” Mangan Books, El Paso, Texas, 1999, p. 85; El Paso Evening Post, May 30, 1928; “District Court,” El Paso Daily Herald, June 30, 1898, p. 4.

xi Advertisement, El Paso Daily Times, September 26, 1895, p. 4.

xii 1895-1896 El Paso City Directory.

xiii Advertisement, El Paso Daily Times, February 25, 1896, p. 4.

xiv “BIG KID ONCE HAD BELLHOP JOB IN PASO,” El Paso Evening Post, May 30, 1928, section 3, page 7.

xv “Local Legislation,” El Paso International Daily Times, August 17, 1895, p. 7.

xvi “Petition for a Pardon,” El Paso International Daily Times, August 28, 1895, p. 7; Interview with Christopher Hoggard.

xvii “They Reconsidered,” El Paso International Daily Times, January 25, 1896, p. 2.

xviii Ibid.

xix Ibid.

xx “Classified Ads,” El Paso International Daily Times, September 6, 1896, p. 3.

xxi “Around Town,” El Paso International Daily Times, October 6, 1896, p. 2.

xxii “Around Town,” El Paso International Daily Times, October 10, 1896, p. 3.

xxiii “A Vicious Young Tramp,” El Paso International Daily Times, October 25, 1896, p. 2.

xxiv Ibid.

xxv “Around Town,” El Paso International Daily Times, December 2, 1896, p. 3.

xxvi “District Court,” El Paso Daily Herald, June 30, 1898, p. 4.

xxvii El Paso International Daily Times, April 9, 1896, p. 3.

xxviii El Paso Evening Post, May 30, 1928.

xxix “Brief Locals,” El Paso Daily Herald, January 6, 1897, p. 4; “Around Town,” El Paso Daily Times, January 6, 1897, p. 4

xxxEl Paso Daily Herald, January 6, 1897

xxxi “A Canine Funeral,” El Paso Daily Herald, January 8, 1897, p. 4.

xxxii “The Prod-igal’s Return,” El Paso Daily Herald, July 15, 1897, p. 4.

xxxiii El Paso Daily Herald, July 23, 1897, p. 4; El Paso Daily Herald, July 16, 1897, p. 4.

xxxiv El Paso Daily Herald,” September 13, 1897, p. 4.

xxxv El Paso International Daily Times, October 30, 1897, p. 3.

xxxvi “A Scrap With Apaches,” El Paso Daily Herald, November 8, 1897, p.4.

xxxvii Ibid.

xxxviii “Volunteers Forever,” El Paso International Daily Times, January 12, 1899, p. 7.; “A Love Feast, So It Was,” El Paso International Daily Times, December 14, 1899, p. 6; “The Fire Fighters,” El Paso Daily Herald, December 14, 1899, p. 3.

xxxix “Board of Fire Directors, El Paso Daily Herald, October 11, 1900, p. 5; “Halverson Loses His Position,” El Paso Herald, October 30, 1903, p. 7.

xl El Paso Daily Herald, September 27, 1899, p. 8; “Notice,” El Paso International Daily Times, October 10, 1899, p. 6.

xli “On Mount Franklin,” El Paso Morning Times, February 8, 1904, p. 2; El Paso Evening Post, May 30, 1928; “Volunteer Firemen Discuss Old Times at Juarez Meeting,” El Paso Herald, May 21, 1927, p. 2; “’Big Kid’ Will Close Cabaret,” El Paso Evening Post, October 25, 1929, p. 14; 1898 El Paso City Directory.

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