Wandering Wide-Eyed in America, Part 5: The Wild West of the Late 19th Century

The western United States of the late 19th century has attained legendary status in the 100-plus years since the sites of high-noon standoffs turned into ghost towns.

"For my handling of the situation at Tombstone, I have no regrets. Were it to be done again, I would do it exactly as I did it at the time." -- Wyatt Earp, lawman

Tombstone, AZ, is authentic and commands your respect as a genuine Wild West town. Silver mining and gambling made it wild and a determined town government allowed it to remain with its honest memories. The original buildings you find there have been preserved. Those “historic” cowboy cattle-town buildings in Dodge City, KS, in comparison, are false; they are re-creations because a town official (whose name will not be revealed to the distraught casual tourist), in the pomposity of his status, apparently authorized the bulldozing of the original historic buildings.

A comparison with Tombstone reveals how much Dodge City has lost. In Tombstone, bullet holes in the antique furniture can be readily demonstrated and a genuine Doc Holliday business card graces a cabinet in one of the town’s small museums. A photograph of the Dodge City dentist and gambler sits beside a résumé of this gunfighter who was actually born in Georgia and died in Colorado.

Bullet holes from the past in Tombstone. Doc Holliday’s business card and photograph.

The Dickinson County Historical Museum in Abilene, KS, attempts to share its history with county residents and tourists. It says, “Its unique history of the cattle drives separates it from all other counties in Kansas.” It has on display one of the two breech loading pistols Wild Bill Hickock bought from the Remington Company. He sold his guns later to C.W. Peterson, a friend and fellow marshal, for $16. The one Peterson kept ended up in his estate and was given by his daughter for display in the museum in Abilene. A Boot Hill Cemetery placard with a poem by Josephine McIntire reminds visitors to Dodge City how hard the life was in cattle drive days and how sometimes that life was brief. A former military Hospital in Fort Riley, about 70 miles west of Kansas City on Interstate 70, holds the US Cavalry Museum and its memories.

Hickock’s Remington revolver. A Boot Hill Cemetery poem by Josephine McIntire. Exhibits at the US Cavalry museum (located in a former hospital) in Fort Riley, KS.

James Bowie and his personal Bowie knife photographed at the Texas Ranger Museum Waco, TX. Statue of Wyatt Earp in Dodge City, KS. He is holding a Buntline Special, a long barreled Colt described in a mostly fictionalized account by dime writers who claimed a writer, Ned Buntline, had given them as gifts to heroes of the Wild West. Bat Masterson’s handgun at the Texas Ranger Museum, Waco, TX. Grave in Cody, WY, of Jeremiah Johnston, the famous mountain man who was portrayed in a powerful 1972 movie of that name by actor Robert Redford.

There have been many movies that have dealt with the mountain men, including the 2016 movie that finally got Leo di Caprio his Oscar but I can’t recall one that great about the Pony Express. That service started with 190 stations, 80 riders and 500 horses and ran from St. Louis, Missouri to Sacramento, California a distance of 2,000 miles. In 1859 it required six weeks to four months to send messages that distance. “The Pony Express shortened that time to 10 days in April of 1860.” The railroad and the completion of the transcontinental telegraph in October 1861 ended the reign of the Pony Express. The statue dedicated in 1963 in front of Harrah’s Casino, now Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, Stateline, NV, was carved by a Dr. Fairbanks who turns out to be one Avard Fairbanks, PhD (1897-1987), who interestingly enough gained his Doctorate in Anatomy at the University of Michigan where he was also Professor of Sculpture.

Interest in America’s past stimulated attention on America’s present excitement, the all-new National Parks. The first park, Yosemite, started as a California state park but finally moved to the National Park Service after the success of Yellowstone.

Pony Express statue in Stateline, NV. Special saddle in Old Sacramento, CA created for the Pony Express: the high saddle horns gave the rider something to clutch when he mounted a fast-moving steed! The cantines (forward pockets) were set high to give his legs clearance. The mochilla (saddlebags) were kept light; riders (average age 19 years) did not carry weapons. The fastest run over 110 miles gave the rider an average speed of 22 mph.

The famous Horsetail Fall at Yosemite National Park. During the second week in February the setting sun hits at just the right angle to light it like falling lava. See KGO-TV image by Jeffrey Plui here. Two more images, Yosemite. Another famous waterfall, this one at Yellowstone National Park

Interest in the National Parks got American vacationers moving both to their national parks but also to other parts that showed America’s history.

East Chop Light, Martha’s Vineyard, MA opened 1869; Southeast Light, Block Island RI opened 1875. The Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island was dedicated on Oct. 28, 1886, a gift from France -- 10 years late -- but both France and the United States had financial issues that delayed the statue’s opening on time.

Much was happening as the United States moved to the end of the 19th century. Alaska was the mystery but then a large vein of gold was discovered in August 1896 in Rabbit Bonanza Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River, and by July1897 North America was having its second Gold Rush.

White Horse Yukon artist Chuck Buchanan in July 1997 placed his tribute for the Centennial Celebration in Skagway, AK, portraying a Tlingits native packer leading a young greenhorn “stampeder” just off the boat in Puget Sound all ready, he thinks, to reach the gold fields. However, whether the prospectors take the Chilkoot or White Pass Trail, they will have a hard journey ahead of them. Even today’s tourists traveling by soft-adventure river raft can find Alaska still a busy hard journey.

Photography by the author.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel and cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.