By Mike (Roadie) Marino
Lawdogs and outlaws fill the American dreamscape with visions of the Wild West. Barroom brawls and honky tonk women, good guys and bad guys, white hats versus black hats in a battle of good and evil played out in a backdrop of the High Plains cowtowns that dotted the landscape of the Old West. Dusty trails and the heat of the sun, building a thirst for whiskey and a hunger for companionship, forming a deadly combination that could erupt in a Vesuvian gun battle..resulting in a one way ticket to Boot Hill.
That is the American picture most associated with the Old West. In reality it was a hard, dusty, lowpaying and bathless drama that was played out on the stage of cowtowns and mining towns that were indeed wild and wooly. Law was a thinly veiled disguise for localized corruption and justice was dispensed with a six gun or the end of a rope. Just as Egypt has the pyramids to extoll her past, America has the Wild West that will forever define us as a people. In this Roadhead Tour-du-Jour we’ll visit Dodge City, Tombstone and Deadwood with guns a’blazin! So saddle up, it’s time to hit the dusty trail, and don’t be surprised at anything you might see along the way.
The longest running TV western in vast wasteland history was “Gunsmoke”. Every week Marshall Dillon, Miss Kitty, Doc and the rest of the townspeople would hang out at the Longbranch Saloon and no matter what evil befell the town, by the end of sixty minutes, right had replaced wrong and good once again, with only a few commercial interruptions, triumphed over evil. Although “Gunsmoke” was TV fiction it was based in reality on the roughest cowtown of them all, Dodge City, Kansas.
To understand Dodge City you have to go back to 1821 when the Sante Fe Trail opened up from Franklin, Missouri all the way to Sante Fe, New Mexico. The trail of trade was direct as could be in those days, but danger lurked behind every coyote bush on the lone prairie. Buffalo filled the grassland ocean with the sound of thunder from their hooves and America was expanding faster than a Chia pet.
Fort Dodge was built in 1865 to protect the trail and it’s caravans, and by 1871 the first settler built a sod hut and trading post for the exchange of buffalo furs, not more than 5 miles from the fort. Like prolific rabbits, the settlers soon multiplied and by 1872 had the makings of a “town” and in honor of their military benefactors, named the town, Dodge City.
Although the boom and bust longhorn cattle drives only lasted from 1875 to 1886, Dodge City has given the world it’s share of legend. The lawless nature of Dodge was caused by a large influx of “cowboys” ready for a good time and a town only to eager to capitalize on that readiness, but the fact remained, there were no lawdog peace officers at the time on the payroll and the military had no jurisdiction. The town simply divided itself using the railroad tracks as a “dividing line”. To the north..no guns, no sin. To the south..anything goes. If you went to the south side of town to Front Street you were literally heading for the “wrong side of the tracks”
Gunfights were common and many a person was shot down in the street or in a saloon and buried with “their boots on” in makeshift graves in what became known as “Boothill”. The railroad eventually entered Dodge and when the conductors and brakemen had layovers would visit the local brothels that were prevalent in the area. In order to be found by their compatriots when the trains were ready to leave and required their assistance, they simply hung their red lanterns outside the door so they could signal their whereabouts. Hence the term, “red-light district”.
In time, the imaginary line of virtue disappeared and things were out of control and it was decided that peace officers needed to be hired, and in the course of that hiring process Dodge City hired some of the soon to be most legendary lawdogs in history. William Barclay Masterson, nicknamed “Bat”, was born in Canada in 1856 and by 1876 was serving as sheriff of Ford County which included the town of Dodge. Another legend was serving as the town Marshall at the time. A gentlemen born in 1848 in Illinois and destined to explode in lore and legend, becoming larger than life, Wyatt Earp. Eventually Bat and Wyatt moved on, the cattle drives slowed down and were all but gone by 1886 and Fort Dodge had already closed by 1882.
Today the cowboys don’t race into town hell-bent on debauchery, the gamblers don’t prey on the unsuspecting and the brothels have all closed their doors. The tourist in search of the “wild west” experience is the new “cowboy” that makes tracks for the infamous cowtown. Dodge City plays host to over 100,000 visitors a year from around the globe who pack the town and visit the Boothill Museum and the historic recreation of Front Street, with it’s saloon’s, mercantiles and blacksmith shop. Watch your step though, gunplay in the form of reenactments are liable to break out at any moment. (Note: This is not the original Front Street and is only a re-creation) Also it’s north of the tracks these days for tourist convenience, considering it was originally on the “wrong side of the tracks”, to the south in it’s high plains heyday. When you mosey down Front Street, and the swinging doors of The Longbranch Saloon swing open go inside and soak up history and pop culture itself. Yes, the original Longbranch was the model for the TV version on “GUNSMOKE” that starred James Arness, who’s character, Marshall Matt Dillion was a romanticized character that was a fictional composite of the real life Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp. Miss Kitty? Well, anybody’s guess.
In addition to Dodge City itself, you can also take side trips to visit Fort Dodge and if you go west of town on Highway 50 towards the town of Cimarron, you’ll find a pull off on the north side of the highway where you can park and walk out into the hills and see the original ruts and remains of the famed Santa Fe Trail. Go south from Cimarron on Highway 23 and you’ll hit the town of Meade and the Dalton Gang Hideout and Museum, an interesting side trip to your Dodge City adventure.
Dodge City also celebrates it’s gun blazin’ past with Dodge City Days, in late July. The town fills up for days of country music, barbecues, rodeo’s, carnivals and crafts, dancing, a western parade and a western art show. Other Dodge diversions include a tour by trolley or stagecoach, cowboy poetry reading festivals and you can wax poetically at the passing of the old west at the Gunfighters Wax Museum!! Dodge also has mighty modified Roadhead action, and you can rev it up at the Dodge City Raceway.
The dusty chaps are replaced by Bermuda shorts and the Colt revolver is long gone, but Nikon camera’s are loaded and ready to fire away. Dodge has over 700 rooms to accommodate the visitor and 40 some eating establishments to appeal to every taste. One of the quirkier things about Dodge City, is that there are two interestingly named liquour stores in town and within sight of each other. One is the Wyatt Earp Liquor Store and within a block or two is the Doc Holiday Liquor Store!! Two old friends still looking after each other. Overall, Doc’s has my vote, as you can sit in a late 19th Century dental chair in the back of the store and have your picture taken!!
Tombstone was a rough and rowdy ride by anyone’s standards. Sitting high on a mesa at 4,500 feet above sea level, and the Huachuca Mountains standing guard over it’s buried natural treasures, it was mining, not the lure of the longhorn that brought notoriety to this part of Arizona. It was such a lawless region that the newspaper was named The Epitaph, and Tombstone itself, earned the sobriquet, The Town Too Tough To Die!! Now that’s tough!!
The lure of silver and ore opened the floodgates and the rush of humanity raced to the region in search of wealth, faster than water running in a sluice. As more miners and dreamers moved to the region, the need for products and goods increased, and eventually the first house and business establishment to cater to the mercantile needs of the growing boomtown was erected in April of 1879. The population swelled like water in a sponge and by 1881 could boast a citizenry in excess of 6,500. Along with the boom came the obligatory battalions of bad guys, barrooms and brothels. The bad guys were certainly a colorful lot of card cheats and charlatons, but by far the most dangerous group were the “cowboys”, comprised of some of the meaner spirits of the old west with Mafia like nicknames. The rambunctious Johnny Ringo, the barroom brawling Curly Bill Brocious and and the somewhat scared like a chicken Ike Clanton. Not abiders of law, west or east of the Pecos, the “cowboys” generally had carte blanche of the town to themselves until a gentleman by the name of Virgil Earp put on a badge and became Tombstone’s Chief of Police.
The wheels were now set in motion and the inevitable non-harmonic convergence and lead filled clash between two legendary factions of the wild and crazy west was about to come to a death dealing head. The Clantons and McLowery’s were used to bullying the populous around..until Virgil Earp and his deputized brothers Morgan and Wyatt had decided that it was time for an old fashioned showdown. They had additional and most deadly assistance from a close friend of Wyatt Earp. He was a hell bent on self destruction “lunger”, gambler and dentist from Georgia, named Doc Holiday. Dying anyway, Doc was only too happy to shoot it out with anyone who might offer the opportunity. Magnificently portrayed in the film “TOMBSTONE” by Val Kilmer, Doc proclaimed to all challengers…”I’m your huckleberry”.
On October 26th, 1881, The Earp Faction walked determinedly to face the Clantons and soon the most famous of all shoot-outs of the old west took place…and was over in just 30 seconds. Although the shoot out actually took place near the OK Corral and not actually in it, the battle left some men dead in the dust and the others wounded or grazed, except for Wyatt Earp. He emerged unscathed and destined for immortality in the annals of the wild west. Dime novels, magazine articles, movies and of course, the Nifty Fifties television series starring Hugh O’Brien.
The dust has settled, and today, Tombstone relishes it’s historic past and recreates it on an almost daily basis with the fervor of a Tasmanian devil on diet pills. Today you can pose with life-size cutouts of the famed participants of the shoot-out and take your stand and your place next to Doc, as you bring down the bad guys, restore law and order and tip your white hat to the ladies. Re-enacters reenact to the delight of greenhorns, city slickers and tourists from around the world. Shoot-outs and hangin’ around the saloon is a great way to enjoy Tombstone, but you might get lucky and see some double dealing, hoss thieving, cattle rustling, no good son-of-a-gun varmint hung from the highest tree around, great fun for the entire family!! Gunfights, hangings, shoot-outs..oh my!!
You won’t have to rough it in some sweaty upstairs room over the saloon either. There’s plenty of lodging in Tombstone so you can rest comfortably, and wake up refreshed with the energy for a full day of souvenir shopping and touring. When you get hungry for a visit to the old chuckwagon, there are numerous choices of eateries for a great steak and a tall cold one to wash down the dust of the cattle trail. To prove that this town of 1,500 is truly civilized, you can even get a gourmet bagel and designer brew of cappuccino while webbing away at an Internet ready digital delight of a deli!! Now that’s civilized. Guided tours aplenty here to help you journey through Tombstones past and to visit highlighted attractions with experienced guides that will regale you with tales, truth’s and a myth or two with a wink of the eye. Enjoy the tour from a great choice of transportation modes including your choice of carriage, covered wagon or one of the stage coach tours that prowl the town.
Museums and displays of artifacts from those highly romanticized days, are also alive and kicking and a visit to the infamous Bird Cage Saloon is a must see stop on your visit to town. It opened as an “opera” house in 1881, the designation being a euphemism for a bawdy house. Brothel upstairs…booze and bawdy downstairs. Now that’s entertainment. The Bird Cage is allegedly where the famous verbal sparring in the learned language of Latin occurred between Doc Holiday and Johnny Ringo. Upstairs in one of those hot, humid rooms is where Wyatt Earp and his eventual lifemate, Josephine, held their secret liaisons. It was common in those days that the “the soiled doves” had to be licensed in order to practice their craft, very similar to having a drivers license, and on display at The Birdcage is Josephine’s permit that allowed her to work in the Bird Cage brothel and her magic on Wyatt.
Don’t forget to visit Boothill and enjoy the ghostly jaunt through a true gunslinging past. In addition to Tombstone, there are ghost towns to visit, drives into the mystical Huachuca’s, and for an extra treat, spend a night in a retro Airstream in the town of Bisbee just to the south of Tombstone at the Shady Dell Trailer Motel with an awesome Cold War motif mixing with the wild and woolie west.
Tombstone lies in tranquil repose not far from the Mexican border. The town and its past luring tourists in search of excitement and a glimpse of our unique American Western heritage. To experience Tombstone is to experience a bonifide legendary locale with a murky past chock full of wranglers, wrong doers and Wyatt Earp.
Deadwood, South Dakota
Doing Deadwood is an absolute Wild West delight! It’s up to it’s gunbelt in Wild Bill Hickok lore and legend, and packs a fully loaded six shooter of sights and attractions guaranteed to appeal to the whole family. Water parks, go carts and casino’s sharing the tourist dollar going with history and Western art. Although the boom town heyday of mining is long gone, there’s certainly plenty of tourist gold in them thar Black Hills.
Deadwood got it’s start during the Gold Rush of 1875, and it’s name from all the “deadwood” that accumulated in the gulch just outside of what would eventually become the pile of debris’ namesake. Gold brought miners, and in turn, the miners attracted all the elements of a bonafide frontier town..scam artists, ladies of the night, merchants, gamblers, gunfighters, and preachers. Deadwood exploded in size with it’s fair share of churches, stores, saloons and opium dens. The boom didn’t last long, however, when it was full tilt boogie, it attracted the infamous and the famous like a giant historic magnet of destiny. The most colorful character drawn to Deadwood, and the one person whose life is celebrated on a yearly basis, is the Prince of the Pistoleers, James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok.
Born in 1837, the well coifed Wild Bill rode into the dime novel west from his prairie. roots in Illinois and created a persona and legend that invited the young guns of the west to dream of taking him on and taking him down at high noon, all in hopes of making a name for themselves and leaving their own footprints in the sands of Wild West legend.
His lawdog career was primarily in the cowtowns of Hays and Abilene, Kansas and brought his peculiar no frills, no compromise, and unconditional surrender brand of law n’order to a lawless frontier. His background also included working as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, a scout for fellow blonde, General George Armstrong Custer and a stint as a sideshow attraction with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.
Getting on in years and eyesight failing, Bill decided to slow it down and go the gold fields and strike it rich in the Dakota’s. Rumor has it that along the way he married a lady who owned a circus, and was also a lion tamer and tightrope walker, an interesting combination to say the least, and hence his reason to raise money in order to raise a family. Wild Bill lit out for Deadwood in 1876 and so did someone else who would figure prominently in the annals of the Old West, Martha (Calamity) Jane Cannary-Burke. More man then most men of the old west, she would be linked forever with the six gun hero, not only in life, but in death as well.
Wild Bill was playing poker in the Number 10 Saloon one day, with his customary seat-with-back-to-the-wall taken he sat with his back to the door instead. In walks Jack McCall to make his mark in the history books. Some say he was hired as part of a conspiracy to assassinate Wild Bill on behalf of the towns criminal elements just to make sure that he had no plans of putting on a badge again and cleaning up the town. In effect, Jack McCall would become the object of Wild West conspiracy theorists worldwide and would be the first Lee Harvey Oswald..The Lone Gunman! When Bill fell lifeless to the floor on August 2, 1876, he held a pair of 8’s and pair of Aces, which to this day is referred to as the “Dead Mans Hand”. What suit they were and what the fifth card was, is still up for debate.
Wild Bill was originally laid to rest in Ingleside Cemetery, but the towns growth eventually called for re-internment in Mt. Moriah Cemetery, where he lies peacefully today. Calamity Jane lived on throughout the west until 1903 when she died penniless in South Dakota. Her final wish, to be buried next to Wild Bill. She is. Today that Deadmans Hand is celebrated along with other events in the yearly Days of ’76 Days and Wild Bill Days.
The true Gold Rush of Tourism began with the first “Days of 76 Celebration” in 1924. Silent Cal Coolidge visited the area in 1929 and in addition to donning a war bonnet, he attracted a half million visitors at the same time, and the new rush was off and running. Today over 2,000,000 visitors descend on the area to visit not just Deadwood, but also the Black Hills, the Badlands and of course, the great granite monolith of Mt. Rushmore and the work in progress of Chief Crazy Horse.
History and gaming go hand in hand in Deadwood, and you won’t have any trouble trying your luck at any one of numerous casino’s that run like a string of pearls throughout the town. The Number 10 Saloon is ready to open those swinging doors wide pardner, so be careful if someone deals you a pair of eights and a pair of Aces with your beer.
To get the real flavor of the era, visit the Days of 76 Museum and try your luck at one of the gold mines that still hold just enough treasure for the tourist to be amazed and delighted, and of course, the obligatory visit to the “Boothill Museum” (every town had a Boothill. They were at the time, the equivalent of a Levittown for the dead!). Reenactments relive those exciting days and you don’t want to miss the Chinese Tunnel Tour. A visit to the Wax Museum is a must on any itinerary, but the jewel of the crown is a visit to pay your respects to the Lucy and Desi of the frontier west, Wild Bill and Calamity Jane. Graves are protected these days because some tourist come to mine and pilfer souvenirs from the tombstones. (Footnote: Wild Bills original tombstone completely destroyed by souvenir hunters way back in the 1880’s. In 1891, a ten foot bronze statue was put in it’s place and within ten years, it was destroyed too!! Ah, what price fame, eh?)
History stands proudly shoulder to shoulder in Deadwood alongside miniature golf, gold panning for the kids, paintball, go carts and water slides. Outdoor enthusiasts will find enough hiking and camping areas that will make your head spin. Souvenir shopping here is overwhelming and can create a hunger, so make sure you please your palate at any of the large variety of eateries that won’t require a suit and tie. Lodging runs the gamut from downtown motels, to bed and breakfasts, to cabins nestled in the pines with fishing opportunities, as well as a plethora of RV campgrounds and rustic tent sites too, for the more Muir-like tourist.
Deadwood is alive and well with activity from The Days of 76 to Kool Deadwood Nights in August, and the heavenly hog Harley meet in neighboring Sturgis every year. The Black Hills region is indeed alive with the sounds of tourism music.
Dodge City…Tombstone and Deadwood. Legendary locations that define the High Plains Drifter past of America. The growing pains of a nation hungry for expansion and growth and feeding that hunger not with a knife and fork, but with six gun justice. Today, you can journey back in time and walk in the footsteps of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and pretend your Wyatt Earp. On the other hand I think I’d make a better Doc Holiday. See you in the saloon Pard!
This Dharmabum Roadhead writer’s work has been described as DELIGHTFULLY WIERD and WICKEDLY WONDERFUL!! Mike (Roadie) Marino is a publisher of an on line magazine called ROAD TRIPPIN’ USA. It’s an asphalt kickin’ journey of Roadside Nostalgia and American Pop/Car Culture for the Chrome-Magnon in all of us. The style is lock n load and deals with the realm of where Pop Culture and Chrome meet Asphalt and Art!!
Mike also writes a monthly feature column under the banner THE ROADHEAD for the award winning Offbeat Travel zine. His column deals with bizzare ashpalt and roadside oddities and locales from mechanical museums to Cadillac Ranch. Mike is also a freelance writer of travel and history pieces that have been published in magazines and ezines in the US and Europe.
Most current project includes toiling endlessly on his first book about Pop and Car Culture in America of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Although born in the rustbelt of industrial Detroit, he’s also been the definitive son-of-a-beach and has lived in a treehouse in Honolulu, the tie dyed spare change neighborhood of Haight Ashbury in San Francisco, as well as the North Beach district..where the Beat Goes On!!
Today Mike (Roadie) Marino lives in Missouri near the banks of the Missouri River with his word processor. In addition, to writing and backpacking, Mike has a penchant for Hawaiian shirts, Jimmy Buffett albums and Corona Beer. If you would like to use any of Mike’s articles some of which are included here, contact him at the email address below or at firstname.lastname@example.org He also accepts contract work and what the hell, a good agent wouldn’t hurt either. So contact him for rates and information. Now…Have Fun Reading…Grab A Cold Corona..And Kick Asphalt!!!