Cowboys lived, rode, and tamed the entire area west of the Mississippi River, but only one town became known as the Cowboy Capital.
Dodge City, Kansas, also known as the Queen of Cowtowns was incorporated shortly before the Santa Fe Railroad arrived. At the time, the booming business was buffalo bones and hides. The town also provided a social gathering place for the soldiers from nearby Fort Dodge. (Fort Dodge was the first fort opened after the Civil War offering protection for wagon trains, mail service, and serving as a supply base for troops engaged in the Indian Wars.)
By 1872 when the building of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad drew closer, the town was waiting, practically already bursting. It’s said this is where the red light district was born, from the railroad workers carrying their red caboose lanterns with them when visiting the ‘soiled doves’ already well established in Dodge.
The military had no jurisdiction in Dodge, so there was no real law enforcement in the town. Railroad men, buffalo hunters, soldiers and drifters were known to settle their disputes with their guns, and the infamous Boot Hill cemetery was hastily created for those who “died with their boots on.” Others, those with money, friends, or community standing, were buried in the post cemetery at Fort Dodge.
With the only free bridge crossing the Arkansas (pronounced ARE KANAS in Kansas) River many wagon trains and settlers used the route taking them through Dodge while traveling west. Once the railroad arrived, there wasn’t even time to build a depot (they used a box car as one) before shipping in and out of Dodge reached unbelievable records. Wheat, hides, meat, and flour filled dozens of cars each day, and the streets were packed with those bringing in things to be shipped, or picking up arriving supplies. Not even mining camps could compare to the riches being made in Dodge at the time. Everyone seemed to have money and nothing in town cost less than a quarter. When Governor St. John was visiting Dodge City on one occasion, he heard of a tornado that had devastated a little town near the Nebraska state line. Within two hours he raised over $1,000 from Dodge City residents and immediately wired the money to the other town.
The first jail house in Dodge City wasn’t a building at all. It was a dried up well, fifteen feet deep, in which offenders (mainly those who’d had too much to drink) were lowered into, and once they sobered up, they were allowed to use a ladder to climb out and be on their way. Dodge City was also known for its chivalry to women. All women were held at high esteem. If a man—any man—was witnessed (even unintentionally) jostling a woman, he was instantly ‘brought to his senses’ by a local bystander.
In 1875 the cattle days were born and for the next ten years Dodge City became the destination for many. Over five million head of cattle where driven up the Chisholm (western branch), the Great Western, or the Texas trails that all led to Dodge. Records indicate about 1200 people lived in the city proper in 1877, however the population varied, more than doubling as summer drew near the drives arrived. Gamblers, cattle buyers, prostitutes and others picked those opportune times to call Dodge home for a few months, and with nineteen establishments licensed to sell liquor, there was always a place to conduct business.
Well-known lawmen and gunfighters took their turn in Dodge- Wyatt Earp; Bat, Ed, and Jim Masterson; Doc Holliday; William Tilghman; Clay Allison; Ben and Billy Thompson; Lake Short; to name a few.
Fort Dodge closed in 1882 and a few years later the cattle drives ended, but Dodge City remained strong. Due to its location and the numerous railroads, it continued to be one of the greatest overland freight hubs in the country, serving local cattlemen and farmers as well as many other businesses.
Made famous again by the TV series Gunsmoke, Dodge City has never lost its ability to draw in the curious. Still today, over 100,000 tourists visit Boot Hill and the historic Front Street.
Having grown up in southwestern Kansas, I’ve visited Dodge City many times, and never failed to have a wonderful time.
All five of The Quinter Bride books—Shotgun Bride, Badland Bride, Boot Hill Bride, Guardian Bride and Wild Cat Bride--which are all currently on sale for just $2.99—were set in and/or around the Dodge City region.