Mushroom Towns of the American West


By Randall Parrish in 1907


The Plains of Southwest Kansas

The Plains of Southwest Kansas

An interesting phenomenon of Plains settlement, perhaps without parallel elsewhere, were those strange towns which sprang up in a night wherever the advancing railway paused, and which passed away as suddenly with the further extension of the rails, leaving scarcely a trace behind. The peculiarity of the conditions under which these earliest overland roads were constructed made such mushroom towns inevitable and the nature of their population served to render them sufficiently picturesque. Stretching boldly forth into an uninhabited and barren waste, to which every pound of material required and every man employed had to be transported, the end of the track, both on the Union Pacific and the Kansas Pacific Railroads, became of necessity a great temporary distributing point, full of unceasing activity and a feverish, throbbing life. Money was plentiful, and no restraints of home kept the restless inhabitants within bounds. Gamblers, saloon-keepers, and dissolute women eagerly flocked to each temporary terminus, certain of reaping a quick harvest.

Shacks and tents, rude structures of board, or even sod, sprang up like magic on the bare prairie, and scarcely had the decree gone forth that here the railroad would pause for awhile, ere the spot teemed with humanity, a new “city” appeared in the twinkling of an eye. Few of such cities survived; scarcely half a dozen of them yet remain. They all flourished a month, some of them six, reveling in sin and lawlessness, only to pass away utterly from the face of the earth.

Historians have never considered this chapter of frontier life worthy of their pens, yet it deserves picturing as illustrative of how civilization first penetrated the wilds. A writer in Harper’s Magazine, who had been connected with the building of the Kansas Pacific Railroad, embodied his remembrance of those days in an article from which I extract much material.

Kansas Buffalo

Kansas Buffalo

Ours the task to rescue from oblivion towns which were, but are not. Coyote, Kansas was such a town, the temporary terminus of the railroad in 1868. Nothing could be more dreary than its environment. On every side the monotonous rolling Plains meeting the cloudless sky. The town itself was a crazy street of shanties; its inhabitants a mob of uncouth men flung down among the buffalo. Where they originally came from was a problem, but the majority had drifted into Coyote from some other mushroom town a hundred miles to the east. They brought with them their dwellings, their stores, the few necessaries of life. The new home was made in a day, and was old in a night. Canvas saloons, sheet-iron hotels, sod dwellings, discarded tin cans, and scattered playing-cards littered the ground. The cards were apparently numberless and always in evidence. Says the writer in Harper’s Magazine:

“Before the breath of the north wind they would rise into air, the queens dancing like so many witches in effigy, as close over the smooth surface they fled south. A few moments, and the barren earth would be swept clean, while the pasteboards, accompanied by stray newspapers and old hats, were fluttering, like a flight of white birds, out of sight. Three days, the usual life of a full-grown prairie gale, might pass, and then, as the north wind met the forces of the south, the tenantless air became alive again.

Far off on the heel of the vanquished and the crest of the victor wind, came the white-winged coveys of cards, like the curses of the proverb, on their way home to roost. At nightfall, they had collected beside the track and among the houses, and were again as thick as leaves in autumn. Had it been possible for conscience to prick through a Coyote gambler’s skin, how it might have gratified him to see the marked Jack that had fleeced the last stranger rise up like a grasshopper and fly south, beyond the possibility of becoming State’s evidence! And how annoying to wake up, and find the knave again under his window!”

Sod house on the plains

Sod house on the plains

Coyote, Kansas lived its brief eventful life in the midst of the buffalo country. For a hundred miles in any direction, carcasses disfigured the land. The meat, cut into strips or lying on sleds, “jerked” and merchantable, was everywhere. It could be had almost for a song. Occasionally a wild herd, stampeded by careless hunters, would dash directly through the town, bowling over tents in their terror, and creating pandemonium among the surprised occupants. To many of the citizens, such an occurrence was only second in interest to a dogfight, and-bets were quite in form. The sporting proclivities of the place were especially aroused on one occasion when a veteran buffalo bull tried in vain to fish out a frightened citizen from behind a log, where he had hurriedly taken refuge after a poor shot at the beast. Try as he would, the infuriated animal could only succeed in ripping the fellow’s pants into rags, but with every thrust there came a yell which would have done credit to an Apache. Instead of interfering in the fun the manhood of Coyote placed bets on the result, cheering in turn for the bull or Sandy, with strict impartiality.

Coyote had a brief but merry life. The terminus moved forward to Sheridan, Kansas. The change was easily accomplished. In less than a week, not a shack remained, only thousands of oyster and fruit cans marking the deserted spot. Sheridan, where the terminus remained longer, became a larger Coyote. It was named after the famous General, then stationed at Fort Hays not far distant, and when that hero was finally introduced to his lusty namesake, he is said to have remarked that, as a seat of war, it strongly resembled the Shenandoah Valley, while the yelling and firing of the Irish mob of employees on pay-day reminded him of Stonewall Jackson’s ragged battalions. Sheridan graced the side of a desolate ravine, with the yet more desolate Plains on every side. It was built completed in a month, but before the single street had even been surveyed the necessity arose for a graveyard, and one was promptly located on a ridge overlooking the town. When any angry citizen threatened to give another a “high lot” he meant six feet of soil on that hillside. During the first week three moved in “with their boots on,” and during the winter the list was swelled to twenty-six.

Odd characters were attracted to such a community as this, as flies to a sugar barrel. The correspondent of Harper’s Magazine thus pictures two who deserve to be embalmed in history: “There was ‘Neb, the devil’s own.’ Neb was an abbreviation of Nebuchadnezzar, which title he won from taking so naturally to grass, or, more correctly, to the prairie, when it was necessary to hide on account of misdeeds. Had anyone been interested enough to make weekly inquiries about Neb’s whereabouts, the answer would generally have been, ‘Out at grass.’ On two occasions he assisted men to eternity without previously using a boot-jack. Once, when an Irish mob was celebrating pay-day, Neb ran out of a hotel opposite, and emptied sixteen shots from a Henry rifle among them. No one was killed, but the ‘devil’s own” found it necessary to go into exile on the back of a stray mule, followed for hundreds of yards by a howling mob and shower of bullets.” Neb ended his glorious career finally at the hands of vigilantes.

Another individual of prominence in Sheridan was “Ascension Stephen.” According to our reporter, —

“This worthy was a half-witted Millerite, who climbed the two buttes once or twice every month, with a saloon tablecloth in his pocket that might answer for wrapper when the trumpet should sound. Fine evenings were often spent by him in this weary and lonely waiting, and on one occasion he frightened the wits out of some drunken Irishmen by rushing down the hill toward them as they were returning from a wild debauch. So well did the tablecloth do duty on this occasion that, for the first time in months, the Irishmen reached their homes sober. A more effective temperance banner never fluttered in the breeze.”

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