Gunfighters on Main Street!

Were they in Central City?

By Forrest Whitman

Great pictures of Gunfighters in the Register-Call lately! I especially enjoyed the July 18 edition with the “wild bunch” in full color on the front page. These days newspapers from the bad old days of the 1850s and 60s are available online. It’s fun to look at where the gunfights actually took place. One can read the original editions of the Frontier Index, or this very newspaper for that matter.

I especially enjoy the political writing of the time. A lot of it causes chuckles today. The editor of the Index, for instance, did not like President U. S. Grant. The reader could tell this by the subtle way he called Grant “a whiskey bloated, double dealing hypocrite, a hell born satrap, libertine seducer, and a leather-headed California bar room bummer.” I’m not sure why he disliked California so much. That writing reminds me of a bumper sticker seen here in the 1970s that said “Don’t Californicate Colorado.”

The gold rush of 1859 and onwards definitely did bring a pretty wild bunch to the west. Gunfights did happen with characters looking like those on Main Street Central City in the photos. But, Central City was never a very good venue for fights of any kind. A better example is the jumping off point for most of the westerners, Omaha Nebraska. You’d hardly believe the staid old town of Omaha was a hot bed of vice, bawdy houses and, of course, gunfights during the 1860s and 70s. But if you read the local correspondent you’ll see things were jumping then.

The “Keystone Hall” took the reporter’s fancy. It was a big tent that could be moved easily when the local authorities decided to crack down, or (more likely) when the trade moved on. In the big tent you could find card games like chuck-a-luck, three card monte, and Faro. All of those games were open for business in Central City too, but no bar came close to the volumes seen in the big tent. Even getting to the big tent was not easy. D. W. Weld, writing in 1869, said, “Rain was falling in bucket-fulls. Got the stage up to the Cozens Hotel, I volunteered to go to the Post Office to get the mail (the Baron’s as well as my own). Walking along the plank sidewalk I reached the end and stepping on what looked like a plank I landed waist deep in mud and water.”

Where the gunfights were

  There were gunfights in Omaha, but nothing quite equaled North Platte, Nebraska and Julesburg, Colorado. One correspondent writing about North Platte said, “Every known game under the sun is played here. Every house is a saloon and every saloon is a gambling den. Revolvers are in great requisition.” When Jules Reni (also known as Beni) established the town of Julesburg in the early 1850s, he probably never expected the growth in population that soon came. When the Butterfield Overland Stage started operating there in 1859 he was put in charge. Beni didn’t last long once the management realized he was stealing, not just from the stages, but from the U.S. Mail. The company called in its most famous enforcer, “Slade” himself, to oust old Jules. In the gunfight that ensued, Beni got two shots off into Slade with his shotgun. Two years later Slade and Beni squared off again and this time Beni was shot, captured, and then killed. That of course ended Beni’s career.

If you were looking for gunfights, Julesburg was a good place to find one. We read in the Index that there were “only sixty-three fights on Front Street last night.” On another night, “Eighty-seven participated, fourteen were wounded, six missing, and the killed not counted.” Another reporter wrote, “The principle amusements are getting tight, fighting, and occasionally shooting each other down for pastime.” In another incident with no fatalities, “Seven Mexicans, five soldiers, eight bullwhackers, four loafers and two half-breeds got into a big bone and sinew muss evening before last off Pacific Street. They fought well and hard for about an hour and then quit almost even, upon condition that the worst whipped should treat the crowd.”

A newspaperman brings reform

  Central City and Black Hawk were both cut off from the worst flow of bunko artists, prostitutes, card sharks, and gun fighting types. That was because Colorado was never directly a part of the trans-continental railway. These migrating desperados and vice merchants depended on train travel to get out of town once they were suspected of killing someone. It was not until 1868 that Denver newspaper mogul, William Byers, got a railroad spur from Denver up to the main line in Cheyenne. That line cost Colorado dearly. Originally slated for $2 million in construction, the bill came to $6.2 million. Byers and other civic leaders wanted to protect this huge investment. Part of that investment included putting a lid on vice, or at least moving it to the back streets. The reformers also frowned on gunfights. The Wild Bunch Gang gunfighters appearing on Main Street Central City this summer would not have been tolerated by Byers. They’d have been arrested, though probably not found guilty as long as the fight was fair. The message to gunfighters was clear however. They needed to cut it out.

What happened to the Old West gun fighters?

  Some of the more civilized towns, Central City for example, never had a big population of drifters and card sharps. The papers don’t report any shoot-outs on Main Street like those in Julesburg. Business interests, then and now, hated gunplay. Another factor was the early feminist movement. We seldom think of women on the frontier as being “liberated.” They were not, but they were beginning to ask for some rights. While few women chose the life of a gilded lady, most were forced into that life out of economic necessity. If their husbands died they had almost no legal rights, even to own property. That began to change out here in the new territories. Increasingly women could hold property. It wasn’t long before they could vote in limited elections too. This meant fewer women were forced into prostitution.

Another factor was the change in gambling and drinking patterns. Fewer men drank away their pay check on Friday night and lost the rest in card games. By the 1880s the gambling dens that so often spawned gun fights were losing clientele. All that aside, it’s just plain fun to read about the bad old days.

The Central City Gunfights Are Still Fun

  I doubt anyone challenged the historical accuracy of last week’s gun fight on Main Street Central City. But, it was colorful and lots of fun. We’ll see more of them I’m sure.

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