Letter From Wild West – February 2008

No Dodging the Question: Dodge City, Kan., is Tops

No other town better defines the Wild West.

The West has always been more than just wide-open spaces. Think back to the Anasazis and their pueblos and then to Santa Fe (founded in 1609) and the other planned towns of the Spanish empire. Now jump ahead to the 19th century. Mountain men thrived in the wilds for long stretches but usually tried to get back to bustling St. Louis every once in a while. And the annual rendezvous camps were crowded places where the trappers could mix and mingle and make themselves feel (often with the help of liquor) right at home (or right at their favorite home tavern). Homesteaders on the prairie usually stayed close to their fields, but they liked to have a town to go to at least once in a blue moon. Some of those towns didn’t always last long (Cash City, for example; see P. 26), but others grew into regular metropolises.

Instant cities sprang up during the mid-19th-century mining rushes, and once again some of them—San Francisco and Denver being the prime examples—kept flourishing, while others were abandoned and became ghost towns practically overnight. Cow towns developed after the Civil War, their growth steered by Texas Longhorns and the coming of the railroads. Hell on Wheels was the name given to the end-of-line, often temporary towns that rose during railroad construction. Some, like Cheyenne, Wyo., which was the terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad for a season, refused to fade away. Many towns lived or died depending on which way the rails were routed. But the point is people have always needed people, and towns were where that need could best be met…even on the frontier. At the beginning of the classic Western The Tall T, a boy who has never been to town asks his father what’s in Contention, and the lonely old station man replies, “People, Jeff, lots of people.” For many Westerners, such urban oases—even ones as small as Contention, Arizona Territory—were what made the wide-open spaces tolerable.

And that brings us to today’s discussion question (actually, you can discuss it long after today on the Web; see P. 4): Which  city best defines the Wild West? Arguments can be made for Santa Fe, with due consideration given its age, its cultural diversity and its position at the end of the Santa Fe Trail; San Francisco, once the northernmost outpost of the Spanish empire and then a modest Mexican town (Yerba Buena) before being renamed and overrun by Forty-Niners; and Denver, which rose out of the 1859 gold rush, became the railroad hub of the Rockies and took on big-city airs in the 1880s thanks to silver king Horace Tabor and other money men. But for me, they are all disqualified; they became too famously urbanized to represent the frontier days.

The three contenders are Deadwood, Tombstone and Dodge City. All three have famous cemeteries going for them. Deadwood can boast of Wild Bill Hickok’s death, the graves of Hickok and Calamity Jane, the stagecoach glorified by Buffalo Bill and the recent HBO TV series Deadwood. Tombstone has the Earps and Doc Holliday, the Clantons and the Cowboys, all the movies featuring the so-called Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the Bird Cage Theatre and longtime town historian Ben Traywick. Dodge has the Mastersons as well as the Earps and Holliday, Texas Longhorns and the men behind them, buffalo hides and hunters, the long-running radio and TV show Gunsmoke, the Long Branch Saloon and the Front Street story of a black barber named John Tyler (see P. 50). The last one clinches it for me, at least for the moment; Dodge City takes top Wild West town honors by a hair. Of course, this was written by a bald man in the overdeveloped East.

Gregory Lalire

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