In the pantheon of our wild west history, certain cities come to mind, always. Places where characters lived and died, where important battles were fought, where the roots of those highlight characters and events were born or took hold. Much more than that, the west holds more of the credit than any other part of this nation for permanently defining our culture, for holding a mirror to our faces in our adolescent years and foretelling who we the people were under the skin and would become on the surface of maturity. Beneath all the violence, prejudice, and bloodied earth that soils those stories, in the west beyond skin or background, class or station, the common ripple of gumption and drive played on the surface of the blood pools. To see the west as purely a violent, bloody place, a dark chapter meant for forgetting, to see fact laden statements to the contrary as romanticized or false, is to be patently absurd and desperate to redefine history in terms more comfortable to the modern climate and to, in a sense, forget the lessons in the story.
One of the best ways to face the reality of that history in a palpable sense is to travel to those locales, those cities, those buildings, those wide open spaces scarred by that same history. Though some of those places through shameful or negligent uncaring are forgotten, there are others which have been so perfectly preserved, you can place yourself in our forefathers’ shoes. You can see for yourself their mistakes, their sins, their transgressions. You can reel in their adventure, the excitement, the victories. Most of all, you can see more clearly, even through the modern light and cell tower haze, the isolation, the causation, the hopes right or wrong behind the violence.
The city of Deadwood is one of the latter kinds of places. As we rode over the crest of a particularly tall hill, the pink hazed sunset suddenly glowed thru the gray soup fog we’d been in all day and we began our steep decent, down and curving, back into the murky gray like some cloudy curtain. Near the bottom of the gulch, slowly the fog thinned and a tiny light here, another light there, all dotted along the hillsides watchful turn of the last century houses, some stately, others modest. Like children, we glanced side to side, taking in every detail of this so sacred a place lest we be disappointed by whatever little original might remain when we reached main street. But worries of disappointment were soon washed away as we rounded a curve and before us was the heart of Deadwood, aglow in amber pools of light and soft dim neons, all granite and archways, cobblestone street and dignified facades and pure history. My heart swelled and as soon as we were unpacked, we went out to explore the streets in the advantageous quiet of a weeknight. Finally to be there, those streets, the same streets where one of my childhood heroes, Bill Hickok, had walked and would die. For many years Deadwood has been one of a few primary cities of the old west on my bucket list, and knowing now how well they’ve done preserving it, I intend to visit as often as possible, to turn over every rock, to see every detail, to take it all in.
Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday being two of my other heroes (or anti-hero if you prefer for the latter), for another town of import to see we revised our return route so as to visit Dodge City. We arrived by night this time, travelling through the oppressive prairie dark, infinite and crushing. Only a few miles out from town, a massive owl shot up from directly roadside, all eerie dreamlike blurred flashes of white harbinger form in the lonely headlight beams and ominous cacophony of wingbeat and rustle in the otherwise silent dark. My stomach turned.
Excitement was briefly restored entering Dodge City by night. Greeted by a silhouette cutout sign of range riders afore a backdrop of the low lit town on the open prairie, the smell of stockyards and near constant calls of train horns, in the dim one could picture it as it was and morning could not come soon enough. Awakened from exhaustion by low calling train horns on a dreary grey morning, we packed and dressed quickly and excitedly left to see whatever might be left of the historic town. Sadly there is almost nothing. You cannot walk the same streets as Bat, Wyatt, and Doc. Although it survived the ravages of multiple fires over the decades, the real front street of Dodge City was demolished under the heels of development in the seventies, only to be replaced later by a false façade “front street” on par with what one might find at any of the western themed carnival attractions across the country or perhaps a Hollywood movie set, complete with shootout reenactments and can-can girls. For a comparably sizeable fee, you can partake of all they have to give the curious tourist, with a display of historic items in the museum for those of us inclined to actually care about history.
Since every small town in the plains has a free museum of pioneer and western heritage, we opted to skip the tourist route. Instead, I quizzed an employee, too young to have stopped something that obviously bothered him, as to whether there was anything left of historic Dodge. He stared glumly at the floor when he explained in a saddened tone where the real front street had stood a few blocks away and on the other side of the tracks, now industrial buildings, and how the bodies from the historic boothill were relocated to the new cemetery because of the boothill’s inconvenient location as the town grew. That former location of the old cemetery is the current locale the false front street with one original building also on the property and one original moved to it for the sake of preservation. At the time too disgusted with the idea of moving bodies from their sacred resting place and disappointed with the loss of so important a place as Dodge to applaud the preservation of at least a couple of buildings, I thought all hope might not be lost if they at least had a selection of more historic texts that the tawdry thrillers, coffee table books, cowboy coloring books, and western themed cookbooks on the shelf. Again, the response was a glum no and mildly embarrassed explanation. Even the once large selection of history books they offered were gone because no one bought them. Saddened, we left, taking a moment to look across to where Dodge City once played its pivotal role, to admire the statues erected in the current climate of love for the town’s past along the Trail of Fame, a longhorn cattle statue, statues of Wyatt and of Doc, with no irony all facing toward where front street one stood, a silent memoriam.
Strange that Dodge City, whose economic fortunes did not take the same sharp decline as Deadwood’s, should be the one of the two to lose its past face to the annals of history, nothing but a handful of historic items in a Hollywood style pop up set, similar to the “front streets” in Wichita and Hays. Maybe it is the transitory nature of the open plains of Kansas, a fleeting itinerant place as it always was, forever changing with the gusting prairie wind and drawn out distant train horn cries. Deadwood on the other hand stands as an inspiration to the rest of the country. Once the hub of business for the Black Hills, that spirit of providing for the hills would find its place in the modern day as Deadwood took a role of preserve for the region’s history. Equally plagued by fires as Dodge and other cities of the west, the more recent fire of 1959 burned almost 4,500 acres and nearly destroyed Deadwood once and for all. In the aftermath the town was declared a National Historic Landmark, but through the sixties and seventies the region went into serious economic decline with the bypassing by Interstate 90 and a lack of business recovery post fire. In 1980 the last of the brothels was shut down and by the mid-eighties most of the historic buildings were dilapidated with more destroyed by fire in 1987.
On the precipice of disappearance, the citizens of Deadwood took it upon themselves to revive their town by forming the “Deadwood U Bet” organization in hopes of putting the historically integral gambling the town was known for to good use. At the time, gambling was only legal in Nevada and Atlantic City, but with a push to try what would become the “Deadwood Experiment”, limited stakes gaming was legalized in Deadwood in 1989 with funds from the gaming slated strictly for historic preservation and building of tourism infrastructure. Seemingly overnight the town was injected with much needed revenue and today the funds have led to both growth and stunning revival for Deadwood and select regional projects. Within Deadwood itself, historic buildings have been preserved while others have been rebuilt to exact specifications of their original architecture in the original locations. The once looted and desolate Mt. Moriah Cemetery where Hickok, Calamity Jane, and the who’s who of the town’s past found their final rest is in the midst of an impressive restoration and beautification project, with every detail from tombstone replacement to body identification being undertaken. A cemetery on a steep hillside with approximately 3,600 graves and to date only half as many markers, that is a task to be admired.
While I realize I am the kind who would prop up every rotting farmhouse, find use for every deteriorating piece of architectural history, disallow development on sacred land, I also know those ideas are sometimes less than realistic. But we preservationists and historians are necessary to balance the forgetters, the developers, and the heartless. Without us, you would not have a massive undertaking such as the Deadwood project or even people to save any scrapes of history left or at the very least commemorate history in the vein of the Dodge City Historic Preservation Society’s recent efforts. In the end, isn’t the forgetting of history through neglect more so a great sin than to at least try the seemingly unrealistic? Is it not better to preserve the reality of history and continue to hold that mirror up to ourselves and future generations? What is really destroyed under the crush of illusory progress? Hardly is the wish of preservation an unrealistic opposition to growth and real world sustainability, but rather it is to illuminate the principle of forgetting history dooming a culture to circling the same mountain again. Factual accountability deeply rooted in the preservation of those sites for our highly visuospatial minds is foremost in our advancement as a nation, as a culture, and as individuals whether those sites are preserved intact or integrated into our everyday surroundings and uses, glimmering reminders shining through the quotidian.
* In keeping with the theme of this piece, although they are two different places of importance in the history of the west and our nation, two other places need to be mentioned, one a natural landmark and sacred space and the other a bit more in the Dodge and Deadwood vein. Please review the list of endangered historic places for 2015 if you haven’t seen it already. The acclaimed stockyards of Ft. Worth and, unbelievably, the incomparable Grand Canyon made the top five this year. If you can, be sure to lend a hand in any way even if it’s just spreading the word about the potential for irrevocable damage at the hands of uncaring developers.