The Beginnings of Dodge City

By Robert M. Wright, 1913

Dodge City Kansas 1875

Dodge City, circa 1875

Established in 1872, upon the establishment of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, Dodge City was in the very heart of the buffalo country. Hardly had the railroad reached there, long before a depot could be built (they had an office in a boxcar), 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.

Charles Rath & Company ordered from Long Brothers, of Kansas City, two hundred cases of baking powder at one order. They went to Colonel W. F. Askew, to whom we were shipping immense quantities of hides, and said: “These men must be crazy, or else they mean two hundred boxes instead of cases.”

They said there were not two hundred cases in the city. Askew wired us if we had not made a mistake. We answered, “No; double the order.” Askew was out a short time after that and saw six or eight carloads of flour stacked up in the warehouse. He said he now understood. It was to bake this flour up into bread.

I have been to several mining camps where rich strikes had been made, but I never saw any town to equal Dodge. A good hunter would make a hundred dollars a day. Everyone had money to throw at the birds. There was no article less than a quarter –a drink was a quarter, a shave was a quarter, a paper of pins a quarter, and needles the same. In fact, that was the smallest change. Governor St. John was in Dodge once, when he was notified that a terrible cyclone had visited a little town close to the Kansas line, in Nebraska. In two hours I raised one thousand dollars, which he wired them.

Our first calaboose in Dodge City was a well fifteen feet deep, into which the drunkards were let down and allowed to remain until they were sober. Sometimes there were several in it at once. It served the purpose well for a time. Of course, everyone has heard of wicked Dodge; but a great deal has been said and written about it that is not true. Its good side has never been told, and I cannot give it space here. Many reckless, bad men came to Dodge and many brave men. These had to be met by officers equally brave and reckless. As the old saying goes, “You must fight the devil with fire.” The officers gave them the south side of the railroad track, but the north side must be kept respectable, and it was. There never was any such thing as shooting at plug hats. On the contrary, every stranger that came to Dodge City and behaved himself was treated with politeness; but woe be unto the man who came seeking a fight. He was soon accommodated in any way, shape, or form that he wished.

Often have I seen chivalry extended to ladies on the streets, from these rough men that would have done credit to the knights of old. When some man, a little drunk, and perhaps unintentionally, would jostle a lady in a crowd, he was soon brought to his senses by being knocked down by one of his companions, who remarked, “Never let me see you insult a lady again.”   In fact, the chivalry of Dodge toward the fair sex and strangers was proverbial. Never in the history of Dodge was a stranger mistreated; but, on the contrary, the utmost courtesy was always and under all circumstances extended to him, and never was there a frontier town whose liberality exceeded that of Dodge. But, while women, children, and strangers were never, anywhere, treated with more courtesy and respect; while such things as shooting up plug hats and making strangers dance is all bosh and moonshine, and one attempting such would have been promptly called down; let me tell you one thing –none of Dodge’s well-known residents would have been so rash as to dare to wear a plug hat through the streets, or put on any “dog,” such as wearing a swallow tailor evening dress, or any such thing.   The general reputation of young Dodge City is well described in an article entitled, “Reminiscences of Dodge,” written in 1877, and expressing what a stranger has to say about the town. The article runs as follows:

“By virtue of the falling off in the cattle drive to Kansas for this year, and the large number of cattle driven under contract, Dodge City became the principal depot for the sale of surplus stock; buyers met drovers at this point, purchased and received purchases without unnecessary delay, thereby greatly facilitating business and enabling quick returns of both owners and hands. In the future, situated as it is upon one of the best railroads traversing the country from east to west, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, it will probably occupy an enviable position as a cattle market. “Dodge has many characteristics which prevent its being classed as a town of strictly moral ideas and principles, notwithstanding it is supplied with a church, courthouse, and jail. Other institutions counterbalance the good works supposed to emanate from the first mentioned. Like all frontier towns of this modern-day, fast men and fast women are around by the score, seeking whom they may devour, hunting for a soft snap, taking him in for cash, and many is the Texas cowboy who can testify as to their ability to follow up successfully the calling they have embraced in quest of money.

“Gambling ranges from a game of five-cent chuck-aluck to a thousand-dollar poker pot. Nothing is secret, but with open doors upon the main streets, the ball rolls on uninterruptedly. More than occasionally some dark-eyed virago or some brazen-faced blonde, with a modern sundown, will saunter in among the roughs of the gambling houses and saloons, entering with inexplicable zest into the disgusting sport, breathing the immoral atmosphere with a gusto which I defy modern writers to explain. Dance houses are ranged along the convenient distances and supplied with all the trappings and paraphernalia which go to complete institutions of that character. Here you see the greatest abandon. Men of every grade assemble to join in the dance. Nice men with white neckties, the cattle dealer with his good clothes, the sport with his well-turned fingers, smooth tongue, and artistically twisted mustache, and last but not least the cowboy, booted and spurred as he comes from the trail, his hard earnings in his pocket, all join in the wild revel; and yet with all this mixture of strange human nature a remarkable degree of order is preserved. Arms are not allowed to be worn, and any noisy whisky demonstrations are promptly checked by incarceration in the lock-up. Even the mayor of the city indulges in the giddy dance with the girls, and with his cigar in one corner of his mouth and his hat tilted to one side, he makes a charming-looking officer.

“Some things occur in Dodge that the world never knows of. Probably it is best so. Other things occur that leak out by degrees, notwithstanding the use of hush money. That, too, is perhaps the best. Men learn by such means.

“Most places are satisfied with one abode of the dead. In the grave, there is no distinction. The rich are known from the poor only by their tombstones, so the sods that are upon the grave fail to reflect the characters buried beneath them. And yet Dodge boasts of two burying spots, one for the tainted whose very souls were steeped in immorality, and who have generally died with their boots on. ‘Boot Hill‘ is the somewhat singular title applied to the burial place of the class just mentioned. The other is not designated by any particular title but it is supposed to contain the bodies of those who died with a clean sheet on their beds-the soul, in this case, is a secondary consideration.”

So much for one view of Dodge City, but, though common, this view was not quite universal. Sometimes a writer appeared who could recognize a few slightly better features in the border town, and who could look beyond its existing lawlessness and see the possibilities and beginnings of a higher state of things. In proof of this, I’ll quote an article written in 1878, a year later than the last, and entitled, “The Beautiful, Bibulous Babylon of the Frontier“:

“Standing out on the extreme border of civilization, like an oasis in the desert, or like a light-house off a rocky coast, is ‘The Beautiful, Bibulous Babylon of the Frontier,’ Dodge City, so termed by Lewis, editor of the ‘Kinsley Graphic.’ Dodge City is far-famed, not for its virtues, but for its wickedness; the glaring phases of its vices stand preeminent and attract the attention of the visitor, and these shadows of Babylon are reproduced in the gossip’s corner and- n the press. It is seldom the picture has fine embellishments, but the pen artist of the ‘Graphic’ put the finer touches of nature to the pen portrait of Dodge-‘she is no worse than Chicago.'”

This, we admit, is slight leverage in the social scale, to be placed in the category of Chicago’s wickedness.

Dodge City has magnetic attractions. Few people are attracted here by curiosity; everyone has a business, except the tramps, and they have no business here. But our visitors see it all before they leave, and they use the same circumspection here they would under their own vine and fig tree. Many of them are not charitable enough to tell the unvarnished truth. In vain boast and idle glory they recount the pilgrimage to Dodge as though they passed through blood, rapine, and warfully attested their courage.”

But the Kinsley Graphic pays the “Bibulous Babylon” a high compliment, besides raising the moral standard of Dodge to that of the immaculate virtue of Chicago.

Dodge City Gathering

Dodge City Gathering, late 1800’s. Click for prints & products.

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. Without particularizing at length, we were most favorably impressed generally during a brief visit at our neighboring city Tuesday.

Beautiful for situation, cozily nestled on the ‘beach’ of the turbid Arkansas River, while on the north the palisades rise above the busy little city, which in the near future will be ornamented with cozy cottages, modern mansions, and happy homes. The view from the elegant brick courthouse, situated above the town, is grand. The panorama spread out west, south, and east takes in a vast scope of valley scenery such as only can be found fringing our river. Seventy-five thousand head of cattle, recently driven in from the ranges south, can be seen lazily feeding on the nutritious native meadows, while the cowboys gallop here and there among these vast herds, displaying superior horsemanship. Five miles down the river, the old flag floats proudly over the garrison at the military Post.

The city proper is a busy beehive of bustle and business, a conglomerated aggregation of every line of business alternating with saloons. Francis Murphy don’t live in Dodge. There are a few institutions of which Dodgeites are justly proud — the ever-popular Dodge House, ‘The Times’, the courthouse, the fire company, Mayor Kelley’s hounds, and the ‘Varieties’. Much has been said of the wickedness and unrighteousness of the city. If ‘old Probe’ should send a shower of fire and brimstone up there, we would not vouch for there being a sufficient number of righteous citizens to save the city; yet with all her wickedness, she is no worse today than Chicago and many other cities where the music of the chimes are daily heard. There is but one difference, however, which is a frontier characteristic; our neighbors do not pretend to hide their peculiarities. A few years hence Dodge City will be a model of morality and a city of no mean importance.

For courtesies shown us, we acknowledge our obligations to Messrs. Kline & Shine of the lively ‘Times’, Judge Gryden (who deserves to be known as Prince Harry, and whose only fault is his rock-footed Democracy), Mayor Kelley, Hon. H. M. Sutton, the popular county attorney, E. F. Colburn, the modest city attorney, Samuel Marshal, the portly judge, Fringer, the postmaster, Hon. R. M. Wright, Dr. McCarty, Sheriff Masterson, and his efficient lieutenant City Marshal Bassett, and our old friends at the signal office.”

Dodge City in 1874, courtesy Ford County Historical Society

Dodge City in 1874, courtesy Ford County Historical Society

Again, under the heading, “The Wickedest City in America,” the “Kokomo, Indiana, Dispatch,” of an issue in July, 1878, refers to Dodge:

“Its character as a hell, out on the great plains, will be,” said a local writer, “maintained in the minds of traveling newspaper writers, just so long as the city shall remain a rendezvous for the broad and immense uninhabited plains, by narrating the wildest and wickedest phases of Dodge City; but we have to commend them for complimenting Dodge on its orderly character.”

The Dispatch speaks very highly of Dodge as a commercial point, and his letter bears many complimentary features. We extract the following:

“‘My experience in Dodge was a surprise all around. I found nothing as I pictured it in my mind. I had expected, from the descriptions I had read of it, to find it a perfect bedlam, a sort of Hogathian Gin Alley, where rum ran down the street gutters and loud profanity and vile stenches contended for the mastery of the atmosphere. On the contrary, I was happily surprised to find the place in the daytime as quiet and orderly as a country village in Indiana, and at night the traffic in the wares of the fickle Goddess and human souls was conducted with a system so orderly and quiet as to actually be painful to behold. It is a most difficult task, I confess, to write up Dodge City in a manner to do impartial fairness to every interest; the place has many redeeming points, a few of which I have already mentioned. It is not nearly so awful a place as reports make it. It is not true that the stranger in the place runs a risk of being shot down in cold blood, for no offense whatever.”

In the year 1878, the Topeka Times says, in a certain issue:

“During the year of 1873, we roughed it in the West. Our first stopping place was the famous Dodge City, at the time a perfect paradise for gamblers, cut-throats, and girls. On our first visit the buildings in the town were not buildings, with one or two exceptions, but tents and dugouts. Everyone in town, nearly, sold whisky or kept a restaurant, perhaps both. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad was just then working its way up the low-banked Arkansas, and Dodge was the frontier town. Its growth was rapid, in a month from the time the railroad was completed to its borders, the place began to look like a city; frame houses, one story high, sprang up; Dodge became noted as the headquarters for the buffalo hunters, and the old town was one of the busiest of trading points, and they were a jolly set of boys there.

They carried a pair of Colt’s revolvers in their belts, wore their pants in their boots, and when they died, did so generally with their boots on. It wasn’t safe, in those times, to call a man a liar or intimate that his reputation for honesty was none of the best, unless you were spoiling for a fight. In those days, ‘Boot Hill‘ was founded, and the way it grew was astonishing to newcomers and terrifying to tenderfeet. We well remember, but now forget the date, when a party of eastern capitalists came out to look around with a view to locating. They were from Boston and wore diamonds and kid gloves. The music at one of the dance halls enticed the bald-headed sinners thither, and what with wine and women, they became exceedingly gay. But in the midst of their sport a shot was fired, and another, and, in a little time, the room gleamed with flashing pistols and angry eyes. This was enough, and the eastern capitalists hurried to the depot, where they remained until the first train bore them to the classic shades of Boston. But with all its wildness, Dodge could then, as it does yet, boast of some of the best, freest, and whitest boys in the country.

We were down there again last week, and were surprised in the change in the city. It has built up wonderfully, has a fine court house, church, good schools, large business blocks, a good hall, first-class hotels, and two live newspapers. The editor of the Times was not in, but we saw Honorable D. M. Frost, the editor of the Globe. Dodge is coming out and is destined to be a city of considerable size.”

Another writer of the Times, defending Dodge City, says:

“There is an evident purpose to malign and create false impressions concerning the character of Dodge City. It is a pretty general impression that a person here is insecure in life, and that the citizens of Dodge are walking howitzers. This is a bad impression that should, by all means, be corrected. Having but a short residence in this town, it is our deliberate opinion, from a careful observation, that Dodge is as quiet and orderly as any town of its size in Kansas. We have been treated with the utmost cordiality. We have observed officers prompt and efficient, in the discharge of their duties. There is an ordinance prohibiting the carrying of firearms, which is rigidly enforced. The citizens are cordial, industrious, and display business alacrity, characteristic of the frontier tradesman. We are surprised to note the difference of character of this town and the impression aimed to be made upon us before coming here. There is lurking jealousy somewhere, that gives rise to false rumors, and we trust every citizen of Dodge City will correct these false impressions, as far as lies in his power. This, alone, would efface bad impressions and false rumors, but forbearance ceases to be a virtue, and we kindly protest.”

Again, the character of early Dodge was defended by Charles D. Ulmer, of the Sterling Bulletin, thus:

Luke Short

Luke Short

“On Friday, the party visited Dodge City, the rip-roaring burg of the West. As we glided into the depot, we looked anxiously along the street, expecting to see many squads of festive cowboys, rigged out with arms enough to equip a regiment, and ready to pop a shot at any plug hat that might be in the crowd, but nothing of the kind was to be observed; instead, there was a busy, hustling little city, like many others in Kansas, with, perhaps, a few extra saloons thrown in for variety. Dodge City was a surprise to us. It is beautifully located — the residence portion on the hills which command a magnificent view of the country, east, west, and south. The business portion is on the level bottom at the foot of the hills. The railroad track is a little close to the main business street for convenience.

“The party, on landing, instead of being received by a howling lot of cowboys, with six-shooters and Winchester rifles rampant, were received by a delegation of as gentlemanly and courteous men as can be found in the state. During our stay in Dodge, we had the pleasure of meeting most of the men who have been so prominently mentioned in the late trouble at that place. Instead of low-browed ruffians and cut-throats, we found them to be cultivated gentlemen, but evidently possessing plenty of nerve for any emergency. Among those we met and conversed with was Luke Short, his partner, Mr. Harris, who is vice-president of the Dodge City bank, and Mr. Webster. The late trouble originated in differences between Messrs. Short and Webster, and, we believe, after both sides get together it could and should have been settled without the hubbub made, and interference of the state authorities. Mr. Short, Mr. Harris, and others assured us that their side, at all times, was ready and willing to submit their differences to the decision of the courts. The trouble has been amicably adjusted, and no further trouble is anticipated on the old score.”

But, as has already been stated, often only the worst side of Dodge City was written up, in a way to make the most of it. In protest against this practice, a local writer of early times refers to a write-up of the sort, in this wise:

“A verdant editor of the ‘Hays City Sentinel’ visits our brothels and bagnios. From the tone of his article, he must have gone too deep into the dark recesses of the lascivious things he speaks of, and went away in the condition of the monkey who got his tail too near the coals.

He says: ‘After a long day’s ride in the scorching sun, I arrived in Dodge City. Dodge is the Deadwood of Kansas. Her incorporate limits are the rendezvous of all the unemployed scallawagism in seven states. Her principal business is polygamy without the sanction of religion, her code of morals is the honor of thieves, and decency she knows not. In short, she is an exaggerated frontier town, and all her consistencies are operated on the same principle. Her everyday occurrences are such as would make the face of a Haysite, accustomed as he is to similar sights, color to the roots of his hair and draw away disgusted. Dodge is a fast town and all of her speedy proclivities exhibit to the best advantage.

The employment of many citizens is gambling. Her virtue is prostitution and her beverage is whisky. She is a merry town and the only visible means of support of a great many of her citizens is jocularity. Her rowdyism has taken a most aggravated form and was it not for the most stringent ordinances (some of which are unconstitutional,) and a fair attempt to enforce them, the town would be suddenly depopulated and very much in the manner that Ireland got rid of her snakes. Seventeen saloons furnish inspiration and many people become inspired, not to say drunk. Every facility is afforded for the exercise of conviviality, and no restriction is placed on licentiousness. The town is full of prostitutes and every other place is a brothel. Dodge by day and Dodge by night are different towns;’ and, then he goes on with more abuse too vile and untruthful to mention. Our brother from Hays City must indeed have been hard hit, but must not have visited any good spot in Dodge City, but, on the contrary, must have confined himself entirely to the very lowest places and worst society in Dodge. Birds of a feather, you know, will flock together. We hope his dose was a mild one-though he does not deserve our sympathy.”

Besides this generally sensational mode of writing up the town, Dodge City was the theme of many lurid stories and sulfurous jokes which tended, no less than the write-ups, to establish her position, in the public eye, as the “Wickedest Town in America.” The following letter is from the “Washington, D. C., Evening Star,” January 1st, 1878.

“Dodge City is a wicked little town. Indeed, its character is so clearly and egregiously bad that one might conclude, were the evidence in these later times positive of its possibility, that it was marked for special Providential punishment. Here those nomads in regions remote from the restraints of moral, civil, social, and law enforcing life, the Texas cattle drovers, from the very tendencies of their situation the embodiment of waywardness and wantonness, end the journey with their herds, and here they loiter and dissipate, sometimes for months, and share the boughten dalliances of fallen women. Truly, the more demonstrative portion of humanity at Dodge City gives now no hopeful sign of moral improvement, no bright prospect of human exaltation; but with Dodge City itself, it will not always be as now. The hamlet of today, like Wichita and Newton farther east in the state, will antagonize with a nobler trait, at some future day, its present outlandish condition. The denizen of little Dodge City declares, with a great deal of confidence, that the region around about the place is good for nothing for agricultural purposes. He says the seasons are too dry, that the country is good for nothing but for grazing, and that all they raise around Dodge City is cattle and hell. The desire of his heart is the father of the statement. He is content with just what it is, and he wants that to remain. He wants the cattle droves and his associations and surroundings to be a presence and a heritage forever.”

Referring to this article, the Ford County Globe, of January 1, 1878, says:

Soiled Dove or Prostitute

Soiled Dove or Prostitute

“We think this correspondent had a sour stomach when he portrayed the wickedness of our city. But we must expect it unless we ourselves try to improve the present condition of things. There is not a more peaceful, well-regulated, and orderly community in the western country;” and then, as the office boy entered to say that somebody wanted to see him, he took his bowie knife between his teeth, put a Colt’s new pattern six-shooter on his desk in front of him, and then said: “Jim, get out another coffin, a plain one this time, and let the critter come in.”

About thirty miles from Dodge the train stopped at a little station, and a cowboy got on, very drunk, and fully equipped in chaps, spurs, six-shooter, and quirt. The conductor, John Bender, asked him his fare and destination. He replied, “I want to go to hell!” Bender said, “All right; give me a dollar and get off at Dodge.”

Thus Dodge City’s evil reputation became established, whether deserved or undeserved. People living at a distance and having no way of knowing where truth ended and falsehood began, naturally gave credence to all reports they saw published, until, in places remote, the very name of Dodge became a synonym for all that was wild, reckless, and violent. Strangers, approaching the town for the first time, did so with dread, entered it with fear and trembling, or passed through it with a sigh of relief as its last roof was left behind. Tales of the fate of tenderfeet in the border city struck terror to the soul of many a newcomer in the community, and the dangers apprehended by these new arrivals on the dreaded scene, were limited only by the amount of courage, credulity, and imagination they possessed.  To illustrate, a young man, going west with a party of movers, wrote a card to his father back east, just before reaching Dodge City, not mailing it till after passing through. Here is what he wrote while anticipating the entrance into the dreaded town:

“In Camp Fifteen Miles from Dodge, May 7, 1877. Dear Father: As I’ve a little time I’ll drop you a card, so you can see we are all well and headed west. Have laid over here to wait for a larger crowd so as to be perfectly safe going through Dodge. There are nine teams now and will be three more in the morning, so we will be safe anyway. There are a good many coming back from Colorado but that don’t discourage us any. That is no sign we can’t do well. Everything goes on as nice as clock work among ourselves; not a word as yet and no hard feelings. – Herbert.”

In somewhat sarcastic comment upon this postal card, the Dodge City Times, of May 19, 1877, says:

“The card was evidently written while awaiting reinforcements to assist in making a charge through our city, but not mailed until they had run the gauntlet and halted to take a breath at a safe distance on the west side. To the father and friends who are no doubt anxiously waiting to know if our blood-thirsty denizens exterminated the caravan, we can say that they escaped us without a serious loss of life.”

What made Dodge City so famous was that it was the last of the towns of the last big frontier of the United States. When this was settled, the frontier was gone, it was the passing of the frontier with the passing of the buffalo, and the Indian question was settled forever.

Here congregated people from the east, people from the south, people from the north, and people from the west. People of all sorts, sizes, conditions, and nationalities; people of all color, good, bad, and indifferent, congregated here, because it was the big door to so vast a frontier. Some came to Dodge City out of curiosity; others strictly for business; the stock man came because it was a great cattle market, and here, on the Arkansas River, was the place appointed for the cattle going north to be classed and passed on, for bargains to be closed, and new contracts made for next year; the cowboy came because it was his duty as well as delight, and here he drew wages and spent them; the hunter came because it was the very heart of the greatest game country on earth; the freighter came because it was one of the greatest overland freight depots in the United States, and he hauled material and supplies for nearly four hundred miles, supplying three military posts, and all the frontier for that far south and west; last but not least, the gambler and the bad man came because of the wealth and excitement, for obscene birds will always gather around a carcass.

Money was plentiful and spent lavishly, and here let me say, there are different classes of men who are producers or money-makers, and misers, up to a certain amount. There were numbers of people, to my certain knowledge, who would carefully save up from two hundred to five hundred dollars, and then come to Dodge City and turn it loose, never letting up until every dollar was gone. There were others whose ambition was higher.

They would save up from five hundred to two thousand dollars, come to Dodge City and spend it all. ‘ There were still others who would reach out to five thousand dollars and upwards, come to Dodge, and away it would all go, and, strange to say, these men went back to their different avocations perfectly satisfied. They had started out for a good time and had had it, and went back contented. Indeed, one man started with twenty thousand dollars for New York, struck Dodge City, spent the most of his twenty thousand, and went back to begin over again.

He said: “Oh, well, I did start to have a good time in New York, but I tell you, you can make New York anywhere if you only have the money and the luxuries and attractions are there.” And these all could be had for the price, in Dodge City. There were women, dance halls, music, saloons and restaurants, equipped with every luxury, while gambling in every conceivable form, and every gambling device known at that time was in full blast.