Return to Gunsmoke Front Page

Dodge City was more exciting than TV lets on

By Mary L. Sherk Special to The Denver Post

DODGE CITY, Kan. - Shouts shatter the street's quiet. Batwing doors burst open, and yelling men explode onto the boardwalk in front of the Long Branch saloon. Pop! Pop! One falls to the ground. It's all staged for tourists.

But don't think Dodge City is all sham. Exciting chapters of western American history were written here by famous men and women, both honest and ornery. Most visitors, raised on television, inquire about Matt Dillon, Miss Kitty and Doc, fictional characters in the old "Gunsmoke" show.

They were never here, but Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp were, enforcing the law and creating their individual legends. People drawn to raw prairie towns touched base in most of them - Abilene, Deadwood, Dodge City, Tombstone. Bill Hickok, Kit Carson and Big Nose Kate felt at home in them.

Plenty of historic events occurred in and around Dodge, and the fact, mixed with the myth of dime novels, lives today in earnest preservation of a sin-filled past.

This area of southwest Kansas was home to some of the 60 million buffalo that once roamed America's Great Plains from Texas to the Dakotas. Scores of Indian tribes - Kiowa, Comanche and Pawnee - hunted them. Later cattle were king, and a bronze statue, El Capitan, guards the intersection of Second Avenue and Wyatt Earp Boulevard as a memorial to the gangling long-horned beasts.

Dodge City circa 1876 is on display at the visitors center at Front and Fifth streets, which includes a replica of Front Street and the Boot Hill Museum. A video shows enormous piles of buffalo bones and hides ready for rail shipment back East and discusses the U.S. military policy to kill all the buffalo so Indians would move to reservations.

THROUGH THE SUMMER, from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, the green Dodge City Trolley pulls out on daily tours to points of interest.

A boardwalk from the visitors center goes past the Fort Dodge Jail, built about 1865. Uphill lies the most famous Boot Hill in western lore, although it was used only until 1878, and no one famous lies there. Signs guiding visitors around the grass-grown plot seem mostly tongue-in-cheek. When someone died who had friends, money or standing in the community, they were buried at the fort. Boot Hill earned its name because it was where the penniless or unknown were dumped into graves, boots and all, wherever it was handy to dig a hole.

The Long Branch Saloon copies an establishment Chalkley Beeson and William Harris ran in last century's bad old days. Of course, "Miss Kitty" presides. A variety show cavorts for tourists each summer evening, the 7:30 p.m. gunfight starting things off with a bang.

The first Europeans visited the area in 1541 when Coronado passed this way searching for Quivira and cities of gold. Teamsters bound for Santa Fe in the 1820s began using the same crossing where Coronado is said to have forded the Arkansas River. Zebulon Pike and mountain men such as Jedidiah Smith hunted and caroused on these plains. Young William F. Cody earned his nickname when he killed record numbers of buffalo near here to feed railroad workers.

Fort Dodge was established in 1865 to guard the Santa Fe Trail. By 1871 a site 5 miles west of the fort had sprouted a cluster of tents called Buffalo City, primarily to sell goods to buffalo hunters. A year later when the Santa Fe Railroad came in, the ramshackle settlement was named Dodge City.

The Santa Fe Trail landmark called Point of Rocks stood just west of town near the original ruts the town preserves for posterity. Point of Rocks itself was blasted away some years ago for a new railroad bed.

Standing on a rise in the prairie with wind rustling the grass, visitors can imagine strings of creaking wagons wending this way 175 years ago. At nightfall cooking fires blossomed, silvery stars studded the sky, mules and oxen stomped and snorted filling their stomachs after the day's long haul.

AFTER THE CIVIL WAR, the Texas Cattle Trail headed straight for Dodge, and in the next decade cowboys trailed thousands of longhorns from Mexico and Texas to railheads in Nebraska and Kansas, shifting west as tracks were built. Rowdy trail riders and railroaders gave Dodge City its reputation as the sin capital of the world. Population varied with the season, swelling in summer with cowboys, buyers, gamblers and prostitutes. For a time Dodge was the largest cattle market in the world, eagerly supplying liquor, gambling and women to lonely men. Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp did their best to control the high-spirited cowboys, but real-life episodes seldom ended quite as neatly as those starring "Gunsmoke's" Matt Dillon.

By 1875 longhorns had almost replaced buffalo on the endless grassland. From 1875 to 1886, 5 million cattle walked up the Texas Trail, most of them passing through Dodge City amid clouds of dust and concerts of bawling.

Fort Dodge closed in 1882, and by 1886 new railroads ended the cattle drives, as well as the stream of freight wagons plying the Santa Fe Trail. The base from which George Armstrong Custer launched campaigns against Indians serves now as the state Soldiers Home, and few buildings are open to the public.

Dodge City claims it added five new words to American English: "Stinker" referred to the aroma of buffalo hunters; "joint" was a synonym for saloon; "cooler" came from the town's makeshift jail, a well where drunks were lowered to sober up; corpses were "stiffs"; "red-light district" came from the railroaders' habit of leaving their lanterns in front of brothels.

Just about anything can and has happened in Dodge City, except for any of the stories depicted in those reruns of "Gunsmoke."

On the Map

For information on visiting Dodge City, contact the Dodge City Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 1474, Dodge City, Kan. 67801, or call (316) 225-8186. The Boot Hill Museum can be contacted at Front Street, Dodge City, Kan., 678801, or by calling (316) 227-8188. Admission is $5.50 for adults, $5 for seniors and students.