Western Trips

Western Trips

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Dodge City Kansas

 Dodge City Cattle Town

If your road trip takes you through Dodge City Kansas you have arrived at a site which exemplified the rapid growth of western America. Many of us first came upon Dodge City Kansas as the setting for the popular 1950-60's television series Gunsmoke. Here each week we saw U. S. Marshal Matt Dillon protecting Dodge from the outlaws ever present on the western frontier. Many of the episodes of course were pure fiction and pure Hollywood. By the same token some of the episodes gave us a slight glimpse into the kind of characters seen in real life.

Cowboys, ranchers, cattlemen, gamblers, swindlers, frontier merchants, common criminals, settlers from the east, European immigrants...all of these people passed through Dodge. So you ask...where is Dodge City?  Dodge City was at the very center of America's push west, particularly to the southwest. It was on a busy trail of westward moving commerce. This was an amazing town and an amazing time in America with colorful frontier figures like Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. With this kind of frontier activity going on in Dodge it's also no wonder why the town eventually attracted lawmen like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. That's a story you'll see on an upcoming post.

Dodge City Along the Santa Fe Trail

santa fe railroad logo
In our post regarding the California Water Wars, we pointed out how Los Angeles seemed to arise in an area that had no apparent geographic benefits at the time, including a good water source. Dodge City Kansas was probably the opposite. Dodge City was right at the crossroads of America's 1870's expansion.

The Santa Fe Trail passed by Dodge City. An interesting side note is that just a few miles north of present day Dodge tourists can view a two mile stretch of wagon wheel ruts dating back to the Santa Fe Trail days. It's supposedly the longest continuous path of wheel ruts still in existence. This is a must see when you visit Dodge City. Please see the Dodge City links at the end of our story. When the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad ( early logo at left) made it a railhead in the early 1870's events really took off. Dodge City was a collecting depot for buffalo hides. Dodge City's southern plains location made it an ideal shipping point for Buffalo hides sent east to St. Louis. The Texas cattlemen drove their herds northward out of Texas' Palo Duro Canyon and below to the Dodge City railhead for shipment to Chicago. This included the famed Texas cattleman Charles Goodnight. The cattlemen in Colorado did the same. Also, being located between Missouri and New Mexico, Dodge saw thousands of travelers pass through via the railroad, some staying. The railroad was basically built along the Santa Fe Trail.

atchison topeka passenger train

A succession of army forts were built in the central Kansas area during the 1840's and 1850's primarily to provide protection for travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. It wasn't until after the Civil War that Fort Dodge was established and the nearby civilian settlement of Dodge City.

Dodge City traces it's beginnings to 1871 when a rancher built a sod hut near Fort Dodge. The cattleman was there to protect his herd. The railroad found it's way to Dodge City shortly after and the sod huts were replaced with buildings. Prior to this time since the 1850's, cattlemen drove their Texas Longhorn's and other cattle to either Witchita, Topeka or Abilene Kansas for shipment east. This process even became a bit complicated during the Civil War. Later there was the Great Western Cattle Trail that branched off from the Chisholm Trail and led right into Dodge. An interesting photo below left shows a pile of Buffalo hides from the early Dodge days getting ready to be shipped east on the rail line.

Dodge City and Deadwood

buffalo hides in dodge city kansas
When you study the history and beginnings of western frontier towns, Dodge City is somewhat different from towns such as Deadwood South Dakota and Virginia City Nevada. The population of Deadwood and Virginia City literally  exploded overnight. When gold and silver were struck in the nearby mountains, prospectors dropped what they were doing elsewhere and rushed there with all urgency. The first housing were tents. There certainly was no time to build permanent structures when the time was better spent hitting a lode of ore.

When looking at the birth of Dodge City Kansas, you have a town that grew from the decades long travel over the Santa Fe Trail. Dodge was actually an expansion from Fort Dodge located just a few miles away. In fact, the Army of the West had a law that prohibited military forts themselves from becoming centers of commerce. Civilians who wanted to settle near the security of an army fort would simply build a settlement one or two miles away from the fort itself. This was common and wasn't the case only with Dodge. Military forts such as Fort Kearney in Nebraska and Fort Laramie in Wyoming had prosperous towns spring up nearby.

Another difference with Dodge was that the Santa Fe Trail was traveled on many years before the Platte Road which runs through Nebraska. The Santa Fe Trail was built for commerce. The Platte Road seems to have served more as an immigrant trail for mid 19th century settlers heading on to the Oregon Trail. While the Santa Fe Trail certainly had it's dangers particularly from the Comanches, the Platte Road and it's Bozeman Trail offshoot were more affected by the Great Sioux Wars.

The Cattle Towns Grew Westward

at and sf railroad map
As in the case of all early rail heads, the western terminus kept moving westward. The map left shows the route of the AT&SF Railroad running southwest from Chicago. In July 1879 the railroad made it's way to Las Vegas New Mexico and with it's arrival Las Vegas also became a major cattle shipping site. With the railroad also came the outlaws, gamblers and swindlers that changed the face of that town as well.

Today of course, Dodge City Kansas is a prosperous modern city. The city has set aside a historic district that takes you back to the days of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. It might even take you back to the days of U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon. You can still ride the train through Dodge on Amtrak's Southwest Chief that runs daily between Chicago and Los Angeles. Essentially on the same route as the old AT&SF Railroad. If you wish to read more about both Dodge City and it's place in Santa Fe Trail history I would recommend these two books.

(Photos and images from the public domain)

You may find the following related old west story interesting. The Tombstone Epitaph



Amtrak Southwest Chief

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