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Spring 2011

Dodge City by Lamplight

by Carol Jenkner

Once established and recognized as an incorporated town by the state of Kansas, Dodge City began to develop a dual personality. In its first few years of existence, it was little more than a primitive outpost, a rough and dangerous place where soldiers from the fort five miles away could come for a drink or two and where buffalo hunters came to buy supplies and sell hides - and have a drink. The railroad established, it became a shipping point for hides and a short time later, cattle. It was not a place for wives and families.

By the early 1880s, although still a cattle town part of the year, Dodge City was also a place where families lived. Churches and schools were built and civilized society ways began to take hold. Newspapers of the time placed notices of church fundraisers, literary societies and elementary school activities alongside tales of drunkenness, shooting scrapes and general debauchery.

September 20, 1884 the Kansas Cowboy, a newspaper that lasted from 1884 through 1886, published the following account: "There was a row and a fight between a couple of Dodge City nymphs du pave last Tuesday night, for which they contributed ten dollars each to the city treasury." This was closely followed by two notices about preachers, Rev. T. C. Miller and Elder Collins, who were scheduled to preach in the Union Church on certain days and times of the coming month. Following these items were announcements from the superintendent of schools and a description of a drunk and disorderly arrest.

The town was pretty quiet during the winter months but once spring arrived, the cattle along with cowboys, gamblers and soiled doves began to descend on Dodge City. Efforts were made to keep the worst of the depredations south of the railroad tracks, but it was pretty hard to keep a drunken cowboy from going wherever it was he was determined to go - particularly when the better class of saloons was north of the tracks.

A map that appears in Frederic Young's book, Dodge City: Up Through A Century In Story And Pictures, shows the placement of many of the businesses during the period from 1878 through 1882 and shows the Alamo, Long Branch, Lone Star, Alhambra, Old House, Occident and Dodge House Saloons arranged along Front Street - north of the tracks - from Second Avenue to Central Avenue, a two block area. Two blocks north on First Avenue was the school house, another two blocks north was the Union Church. The more civilized the venue, the higher it was geographically since the streets running north and south moved uphill from south to north.

Still, Dodge City was improving year by year and the Kansas Cowboy was quick to point this out. The editor, Colonel Prouty, devoted most of a column to the seamy side of Dodge City explaining at the end that: "The stranger will please note that the foregoing is a faithful portrayal of only one side of Dodge City life."

Prouty called his portrayal, "Dodge City By Lamp Light" and went on to note that things didn't really get hopping until the hours between midnight and dawn. He noted that: "It is during those last six hours that our city may be seen in its character that has been heralded to the world, unembellished and unaided by the fiction writer's paint." His detailed description paints a colorful picture of the flickering lamplight, the gaudily dressed parade of prostitutes on the arms of their men of the evening. He wrote of piano players, singers and dancers, who usually stopped at some point during the jollity for a bout of name calling and fist fighting until some one stepped in to stop it, then the revelry would begin again until the first rays of sunlight hit the streets - "when all disperse and sleep off their night's debauch until the lamps are lighted for the next night's orgie."

The revelers, though named by Colonel Prouty, remain mostly mysterious players who kept to the shadows of the night, unrecognizable in the light of day. Little Dot came in with the Rincon Kid, followed closely by Eat 'em up Jake, the Stuttering Kid, Emporia Belle, Hop Fiend Nel, Scar-faced Lil and Miss One Fin. The only name known today was George Masterson, brother of the town's one time sheriff, Bat Masterson.

This was the surreal world of Dodge City by lamplight. It was a scene that was beginning to fade away as the days of the cattle drives were nearing an end and the family farms were taking their place.


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