Dodge City, Kansas – A Wicked Little Town


Dodge City Kansas 1874

Dodge City Kansas 1874, courtesy Ford County Historical Society

“Kansas has but one Dodge City, with a broad expanse of territory sufficiently vast for an empire; we have only room for one Dodge City; Dodge, a synonym for all that is wild, reckless, and violent; Hell on the Plains.”

— A Kansas Newspaper in the 1870s

Looking east on Dodge City’s Front Street, 1878.

Famous for its rich history as a frontier cowtown, Dodge City offers up a wide array of legends, lore, and history to travelers in western Kansas. Once called home or visited by such notables as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate, and Clay Allison, this old town had a reputation for being the most wicked town in the Old West.

In 1865, Fort Dodge was established near the present site of Dodge City. During these rough times, the pioneers were often attacked by marauding Indians. The Fort offered protection to the wagon trains from the Indians, provided mail service and served as a supply base for troops engaged in the Indian Wars to the south. Major General Greville Dodge was placed in command of the 11th and 16th Kansas Cavalry Regiments and began work during the harsh winter of 1865, to repair telegraph lines and reopen travel routes. The Indians usually refrained from attacks during winter months.

The long Santa Fe Trail between Franklin, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico saw thousands of wagons pass as they traveled the Mountain Branch west of Dodge City along the north bank of the Arkansas River into Colorado.

Wagon Train

Wagon Train

A shorter, but more dangerous route to Santa Fe was the Cimarron Cutoff, which crossed the river near Dodge City heading southwest to the Cimarron River. This trail was much more dangerous due to the vast spaces of waterless sand hills and increased risk of Indian attacks. In spite of all the hazards, this route was preferred by many traders and travelers because there were no mountains to be crossed and the distance to Santa Fe was somewhat shorter than the Mountain Route.

In 1871, a rancher by the name of Henry L. Sitler constructed a three-room sod house five miles west of Fort Dodge. At the foot of a hill along the Santa Fe Trail, Sitler’s home became a frequent stopping place for buffalo hunters and traders. Of the Santa Fe Trail and its many wagon trains, Sitler would later say, “If you stood on the hill above Dodge City, there was traffic as far as you could see, 24-hours a day, seven days a week on the Santa Fe Trail.”

Hoover's Store, Dodge City, Kansas

Hoover’s Store, Dodge City, Kansas

Soon, another man by the name of George M. Hoover would join Sitler, building Dodge City’s first business, a saloon built of sod and boards. On August 15, 1872, a group of businessmen from Forts Dodge, Riley, and Leavenworth, Kansas organized the Dodge City Town Company and began the planning and development of the town site. At first, the settlement was named Buffalo City until they learned there was already a town by that name, so it was changed to Dodge City, after the fort.

In September 1872 the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad arrived in Dodge City, which would initiate a tremendous growth for many years. Adjacent to the railroad tracks, hastily built frame buildings and tents sprang up, housing two grocery and general merchandise stores, a dance hall, a restaurant, a barber shop, and a blacksmith shop. One of the directors of the Town Company, a man by the name of Robert M. Wright would say of this time:

“Hardly had the railroad reached there, long before a depot could be built …, business began; and such a business! Dozens of cars a day were loaded with hides and meat, and dozens of carloads of grain, flour, and provisions arrived each day. The streets of Dodge were lined with wagons, bringing in hides and meat and getting supplies from early morning to late at night… I have been to several mining camps where rich strikes had been made, but I never saw any town to equal Dodge.”

In the burgeoning settlement, there was initially no law enforcement and Dodge City quickly acquired its infamous stamp of lawlessness and gunslinging As the many buffalo hunters, railroad workers, drifters, and soldiers streamed into the town after long excursions on the prairie, they quickly found the saloons and the inevitable fights ensued. With the gunfighters dying with their boots on, Dodge City developed the Boot Hill Cemetery, which was used until 1878.

Dodge City Buffalo Hide Yard in 1878

Dodge City Buffalo Hide Yard in 1878

Dodge City became the buffalo capital of the west and buffalo hides towered along Front Street awaiting shipment. Filthy buffalo hunters and traders filled the town’s establishment and the term “stinker” was coined. However, when General William Sherman, Army Commander-in-Chief, ordered the slaughter of buffalo in order to drive the Indians onto reservations, the prairie was littered with decaying carcasses.

Though Sherman’s tactic of killing the buffalo was effective in winning the Indian Wars, it placed hundreds of buffalo hunters out of business. Most of the buffalo were gone by 1876, but over 1 ½ million hides had been shipped from Dodge City on the railroad. For years farmers, during hard times, gathered the buffalo bones and sold them for six to eight dollars a ton. The bones were used in the manufacture of china and fertilizer.

Though the buffalo no longer offered a source of revenue for the townspeople, the cattle drives replaced the buffalo hunters. By the spring of 1876 the cattle trade had shifted west from Ellsworth and Wichita, Kansas, to Dodge City. As the Longhorn cattle from Texas were driven up the western branch of the Chisholm Trail to the railroad at Dodge City, the settlement was alive again. During the next 10 years, over 5 million head were driven on the trail into Dodge City.

Cowboys at water tank in Dodge City, Kansas.

Cowboys at the water tank in Dodge City, Kansas.

But the cowboys brought even more lawlessness to Dodge City and soon the mayor contacted Wyatt Earp, who was working as a Wichita lawman. Pleading for Earp’s help, he offered Wyatt the position of Chief Deputy Marshal with unheard of salary of $250 per month.

When Wyatt arrived, Dodge City’s population was 1,200 and 19 businesses were licensed to sell liquor.

Marshal Larry Deger, the last of a long line of officers who had been run out of town or shot in the back by the lawless forces of Dodge, was overwhelmed and heartily welcomed Wyatt. Soon, four assistant deputies were hired — Bat Masterson, Wyatt’s old buffalo hunting friend; Charlie Basset; Bill Tilghman; and Neal Brown.

Intending to restore order, one of the first things the new lawmen did was to initiate a “Deadline” north of the railroad yards on Front Street to keep the commercial part of the city quiet. On the north side, the city passed an ordinance that guns could not be worn or carried. On the south side of the “deadline”, those who supported the lawlessness continued to operate as usual, with a host of saloons, brothels, and frequent gunfights. The expression “Red Light District” was coined in Dodge City when the train masters took their red caboose lanterns with them when they visited the town’s brothels. The gun-toting rule was in effect around the clock and anyone wearing a gun was immediately jailed. Soon, Dodge City’s jail was filled.

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