Stories of cowboys, cattle drives, and gunfights are still told on the streets of this Kansas prairie town.
By Anne Zohner Maxwell
No other Kansas town seems to sing out its reputation and beckon visitors like Dodge City. Unlike some prairie settlements, Dodge City did not have a quiet beginning. It burst onto the scene almost overnight with rowdy cowboys, unruly buffalo hunters, and storied saloons. The “Queen of Cowtowns” became notorious for its lawlessness and spawned countless stories that still evoke interest and curiosity today.
Much of the world knows only the fictional Dodge City — the one seen on the long-lived television series “Gunsmoke.” The true Dodge City may not be quite as dramatic, but it is a town that is rich with legend and steeped in history.
Dodge City was founded in 1872 at a site 5 miles west of the Fort Dodge military reservation, which protected supplies and wagon trains traveling on the Santa Fe Trail. Also in 1872, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad came to Dodge City, thus ensuring the town’s future. So began an unforgettable chapter in the lore and legend of the Old West.
Dodge City’s reputation as the Cowboy Capital of the World was earned honestly, as an estimated 5 million head of longhorn cattle were driven northward on the Western Trail from Texas. The town’s population increased with the tide of cattle: in summer, when the cowboys arrived, so did a swarm of gamblers, cattle buyers, and prostitutes. In addition to cattle, trade was brisk in bison hides. Between 1872 and 1874 a massive slaughter of bison was carried out; it’s estimated that 850,000 hides were loaded onto trains at Dodge City. By 1875, bison in the area had been eradicated.
Dodge City’s reputation for lawlessness was based on fact. In its early years, the town had no law enforcement, and the military had no jurisdiction over it. The buffalo hunters, soldiers, and railroad workers fought each other with no restrictions. Newspaper accounts at the time described the wild town and noted how shootout victims in Dodge City were being “buried with their boots on.” The name stuck, and the local cemetery became known as Boot Hill Cemetery.
Peace and order were brought to town by Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Charlie Bassett, and Bill Tilghman. By then, the town still had its wild side — literally. On the south side of the railroad tracks, it was still “anything goes.” North of the tracks, guns could not be worn or carried.
Today the cattle pens and saloons are long gone. State-of-the-art facilities, a growing population, and a booming business sector seem to belie the town’s Wild West heritage. Even so, there’s still one place in town where visitors can hear their footsteps echo along the boardwalk of Front Street, witness a high-noon gunfight, and return to the Long Branch Saloon: Boot Hill Museum & Front Street.
Boot Hill Museum is located in the heart of the community near the original site of Front Street, where Wyatt Earp once kept the peace. It also encompasses the original Boot Hill Cemetery. It is more than a mere memory of the old Dodge City; it is a living history town that continues to thrive in the hearts and imaginations of anyone who has ever wanted to be a cowboy or gunslinger.
Here, one can both dream about the Old West and actually experience what life was like back in the 1870s on the Kansas plains. The museum, founded in 1947, harbors countless historical photos and documents.
Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, chuck wagon dinners, gunfight re-enactments, live entertainment, and living history interpreters fill the streets. After the summer season, a historian is on hand to provide insight into visitors’ experiences, so they can see the town through the eyes of early settlers.
A 13-minute film provides an introduction to the history of Dodge City and prepares visitors for their tour of the museum complex. But the best way to really venture back to the Old West is to step through the swinging doors of the Long Branch Saloon. If you’re thirsty, you’re in luck, because the Long Branch still serves up sarsaparilla and other cold beverages. If you visit the saloon during the summer, you can be entertained by Miss Kitty and her famous cancan girls.
You’ll want to make sure you make the most of your visit by pausing at all the different displays and exhibits that line the 1870s Front Street replica, which was built in 1958.
Mosey on through the gun exhibit, called Guns that Won the West, where you can see the impressive firepower that packed a punch when push came to shove between outlaws and the marshals in the early days of “Bloody Dodge City.” The exhibit, which was unveiled in 2001, includes firearms that were used by buffalo hunters, outlaws, gamblers, and lawmen. A mural of Front Street enhances the exhibit, and visitors can learn delicious details about the men who wielded the weapons.
For those intrigued by Wyatt Earp, one of Dodge City’s most famous lawmen, the museum also boasts a display devoted to the facts and folklore surrounding his life.
Wander through other business establishments in the frontier town. A bank, a newspaper office, and a dry goods store all line the quaint street.
Of course, the most notorious spot on the museum grounds is Boot Hill Cemetery. It is situated on a hill, as its name suggests, and markers provide information about the various individuals who were laid to rest. The cemetery was used solely for people who were penniless or unknown. Folks with sufficient money or community standing were buried at the post cemetery at Fort Dodge.
FMCA members traveling from the Motor “Home On The Range” extravaganza in Hutchinson, Kansas, might wish to visit Boot Hill’s Oktoberfest. This year the annual event will take place Saturday, October 5, from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., and will feature homemade German food, authentic music, and a beer garden. All other attractions at the museum will be available, too.
Boot Hill Museum & Front Street is at the corner of Front and Fifth streets and is open daily year-round, except for major holidays. Admission prices vary according to the season. During the summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, admission is $7 for adults, $6.50 for seniors and students ages 7 to 17, and free for children 6 and under. During the remainder of the year, admission is $6 for adults, $5.50 for seniors and students, and free for children. Family rates and group rates are available. For more information, contact the museum at (620) 227-8188 or visit www.boothill.org.
Settlers who ventured out West for a new life not only left their mark on history but on the prairies they traveled across in wagons. The impressions made by the heavy wheels of pioneer freight wagons still can be seen at the Santa Fe Trail Ruts site, 9 miles west of Dodge City. The site is on the National Register of Historic Places and is administered by Boot Hill Museum.
The Santa Fe Trail Ruts Site is handicapped-accessible and features benches along a sidewalk leading to a gazebo. Information about the site and the nearby Soule Canal is presented on signage. Visitors can gaze across the prairie and view the ruts for free. Take U.S. 50 west of town; the site is on the north side of the road.
Travelers crossing the West by train needed more than rest and refreshment when they pulled into a depot. They needed a safe place to stay and fine service. Fred Harvey was only too happy to provide it at his famous restaurants and hotels. His establishments could be found in train depots from Topeka to California. A real stickler for quality, Mr. Harvey worked to ensure that his guests would have only the best food and lodging during their stay. The Santa Fe Depot in Dodge City boasted Mr. Harvey’s “El Vaquero” (The Cowboy”) Inn.
The Santa Fe Depot on Wyatt Earp Boulevard in Dodge City hasn’t hosted travelers for years, but this month, the building will get a fresh beginning and a new chapter in its storied history. That’s when a 10-year, nearly $10 million renovation project is scheduled to be completed. The lobby that welcomed weary travelers has been restored to its original 1913 state, complete with the original flooring, woodwork, and embossed ceiling. Original furnishings, such as a cast-brass cashier’s cage and original light fixtures, remain as well. As of this writing, no specific date had been set for the depot’s September opening. For more information, contact the Dodge City Convention and Visitors Bureau (800-653-9378).
On a quiet corner of the town, visitors can see how one pioneer family homesteaded in the early days of the community. The Home of Stone, also known as the Mueller-Schmidt House (112 E. Vine St.), is a three-story structure made of native limestone. The home was built by John Mueller in 1881 and is the oldest dwelling in Dodge City. Inside are original furnishings and an exhibit of memorabilia depicting the efforts of pioneer mothers who helped to settle Ford County. Admission is free. The home is regularly open in the summer; after Labor Day, visitors may arrange for a tour by phoning Linda Wilson at the Dodge City Convention and Visitors Bureau (800-653-9378).
As time went on, things changed in Dodge City. Fort Dodge closed in 1882 and by 1886, cattle drives had ended. The little town continued to exist, however, and today prides itself on its youth and the strong local education system. To honor teachers throughout the state, the Kansas Teachers’ Hall of Fame was established in town by Laurence Stanton, former principal of Dodge City High School. Among other attractions, a gallery features photos and stories of nearly 300 Kansas teachers who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
At the same address (603 Fifth Ave.), but upstairs, is another town attraction: the Gunfighters Wax Museum. Life-size wax likenesses of such famous lawmen as Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson can be viewed, as well as those of the Dalton brothers. Both of these attractions are open only in summer, from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. As is the case with the Home of Stone, visitors after Labor Day are asked to contact Ms. Wilson at the Dodge City Convention and Visitors Bureau to arrange a tour.
Regardless of when you visit Dodge City, you can stretch your legs and gain some insight into local history by taking a self-guided walking tour of town. Stop by the visitors center at the Dodge City Convention and Visitors Bureau (400 W. Wyatt Earp Blvd.) for a narrative audiotape. The cassette tape describes 19 stops within a seven-block radius of the visitors center. It includes the original site of Front Street, where you can see the quaint house that was home to two of Dodge City’s notable lawmen, and stop by the community’s oldest church building still in use. If you like, you can drive the tour instead. The audiocassette is available for rent or purchase.
Five miles east of Dodge City on U.S. 154/400 is Fort Dodge, which was established in 1865. Fort Dodge now serves as the Kansas Soldiers’ Home — a residence for today’s veterans. A museum and library at the site are open daily from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. Admission is free, and visitors can enjoy a self-guided driving or walking tour with the help of interpretive signs that are posted on the grounds. Seven of the original fort buildings still stand.
If a taste of Old West entertainment and a hearty meal are what you’re hungry for, Marchel Ranch can cater to your appetite. This local attraction is well-known for its chuck wagon dinner and Wild West show. Settle down to enjoy singing, dancing, and amazing rodeo feats using horses, cattle, and bison. The Marchel Ranch Chuckwagon Cafe is open for lunch from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; the dinner show is offered on Friday and Saturday nights (after Labor Day) from 5:00 to 8:30 p.m. Marchel Ranch is approximately 2 miles west of Dodge City off U.S. 50. Phone ahead for more information (877-631-6196, 620-227-7307), or visit www.marchelranch.com.
Don’t miss Dodge City as you travel to or from the Hutchinson motorhome extravaganza. It truly is legendary.
Dodge City Convention and Visitors Bureau
P.O. Box 1474
400 W. Wyatt Earp Blvd.
Dodge City, KS 67801
11070 W. Wyatt Earp Blvd. (U.S. 50)
Dodge City, KS 67801
500 E. Cherry St.
Dodge City, KS 67801
(620) 225-8044; (620) 225-9003