Tales of the U.S. Wild West
Canadians with a fondness for the legends and larger-than-life characters of the U.S. wild west are invited to take a tour
Most of us watched TV westerns in our younger days. The lawlessness of those old cowboy and mining towns remains legendary. Those wild-west towns were the 19th-century version of our modern-day desire to win the lottery, though the real money was made by businesses that catered to the whims of cowboys and miners.
Today, Canadians with a lust for the road can check out those famous western locations for themselves. Read on for a summary of some of the more infamous towns and bad-boy characters, and what the curious long-distance traveller can find there in 2012.
Virginia City, Nevada
Eighteen fifty-nine was the year that a desert canyon in north-western Nevada exploded into the national consciousness with the cry of “gold in them thar hills.” Virginia City’s C Street soon became the place to see and be seen. The wealth extracted from the silver and gold mines of the Comstock Lode discovery created a few millionaires and even led to Nevada statehood in 1864 to aid the Union war effort versus the Confederate states.
Speaking of bonanzas, the fictional Cartwright family of the Ponderosa ranch in the TV series Bonanza would travel to Virginia City for supplies. A real-life character in Virginia City was the young writer Samuel Clemens who wrote for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper under the pen name Mark Twain.
Today, Virginia City’s wooden sidewalks, casinos and saloons welcome tourists with lots of family attractions. Activities to enjoy include the Virginia and Truckee Railroad train ride (May to October) and camel races, held in September each year. Check out visitvirginiacitynv.com for more information.
“Three men hurled into eternity in the duration of a moment” was how the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper described the most famous gunfight in American history – the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place around 3 in the afternoon on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 1881. Thirty-some shots were reportedly fired in 30 seconds as lawmen Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan and their friend Doc Holliday tried to disarm Billy Clanton, the McLaury brothers and their cowboy friends. Billy Clanton and the McLaurys would end up in Boot Hill cemetery.
Tombstone was a rough and tumble mining town founded in 1877 when Edward Schieffelin left a nearby army fort to prospect for gold in Apache territory of south-eastern Arizona. Soldiers laughed at him, saying he would find his own tombstone, not silver; hence the name Tombstone when he discovered a rich silver vein.
Eventually, the silver ran out and the mines became flooded. One headstone in Boot Hill cemetery captures the town’s character:
“Here lies Les Moore
Killed by a Colt 44
No Les no more”
The present-day scene of the O.K. Corral gunfight includes re-enactments and life-sized lawmen and cowboy figures that stand where the bullets flew. Many movies have been made about the gunfight so pretend that you are a movie star like Kevin Costner (in the 1994 movie Wyatt Earp) as you saunter the wooden sidewalks of Tombstone.
Check out Wyatt Earp days in May (mock gunfights/hangings, chili cook-offs, 1880s fashion show) or Helldorado Days (parade, live music, cowboy social), this year from Oct. 19-21. Visit tombstonechamber.com for more details.
There is a story about a little girl whose family decided to move to Bodie, California in the 1860s. Distraught, she reportedly wrote in her diary: “Good-bye God, I’m going to Bodie.”
The destination of her nightmares sprang to life when Waterman S. Body found gold in 1859 and – surprise, surprise – a wild, violent town developed. Some claim that the spelling of the town’s name was changed from Body to Bodie to ensure the correct pronunciation. Like many mining towns of the era, Bodie had its own Chinatown where Chinese labourers could live and work in their own culture and language. The opium dens, however, were shared with all races.
Bodie today is a true ghost town, with no accommodations for an overnight stay. Even the last few miles of the road in are gravel. Bodie State Historic Park keeps the town looking authentic; maintenance is done only to keep the structures from collapsing.
To plan your visit, go to parks.ca.gov and search for “Bodie.”
Lincoln, New Mexico
Would you believe a food fight begat a two-year violent struggle between two stores? That’s the genesis of the Lincoln County War (1878-1881) and the legend of Billy the Kid. U.S. President Hayes once described the main street of Lincoln as “the most dangerous street in America.”
Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan owned the sole store in town, a bank, cattle ranches and a contract to supply nearby Fort Stanton. This monopoly, not surprisingly, led to high prices and high profits for the owners. Soon, John Tunstall and Alexander McSween established a rival store in 1876 (called “The House”) and both sides became engaged in cattle rustling and sabotage of each other’s operations.
The murder of John Tunstall on Feb. 18, 1878 precipitated the Lincoln County War as Turnstall employees tried to avenge the murder. Billy the Kid (born William Henry McCarty, later known as William H. Bonney) was one of the ranchhands for the Turnstall gang (known as “The Regulators”) and he took part in a five-day gun battle in July 1878. Billy the Kid, who was accused of killing 21 people, was later convicted of murder, escaped and was killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner, NM. U.S. troops were eventually dispatched to establish law and order in Lincoln.
Flash forward 129 years. The headline in the Roswell Daily Record newspaper in 2009 screams: “Kid Escapes, Kills Two Guards. That was how the newspaper promoted festivities known as Old Lincoln Days in August. The fun takes place the first full weekend of every August and includes the “Last Escape of Billy the Kid” pageant and a mountain-man camp.
Lincoln remains a series of adobe-style buildings and museums known as the Lincoln State Monument. One such museum, the Lincoln County Courthouse, still has bullet holes in the wall from the time of Billy the Kid’s escape. Go to ruidoso.net/lincoln for more information.