Dodge City, Kansas. The Queen of the Cow Towns. Even Now.

Posted on November 1, 2016

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cowboysWhile I’ve always associated Dodge City with the television series Gunsmoke, obviously the story goes a little deeper – especially since Gunsmoke wasn’t even filmed in Dodge City, but rather on a set located outside Knab, Utah.

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Gunsmoke set outside Knab, Utah, on private property. Little of it remains today

Oh, well – that’s Hollywood.

Fort Dodge was constructed during the Indian Wars in the middle 1860s to protect emigrants and traders following the Santa Fe Trail.

By the early 1870s, cattle ranching was well established thanks to the Trail and the arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad. The commercial opportunities offered by the region were quickly recognized, and the town was soon platted and a bar established in a tent to serve the thirsty soldiers from Fort Dodge.

It was a natural choice to call the new town Dodge City.

When the first Santa Fe train steamed into town in 1872, a ready source of freight awaited – cattle ready for market, having been driven over various trails from Texas to Dodge City.

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Image: tbsstoryoftexas.com

During the 1860s, cattle from Texas had been driven along the Shawnee Trail, all the way to markets in southeastern Kansas. However, these herds carried a tick causing a disease which had the potential to quickly spread to Kansas cattle.  Fearful for their livelihood, ranchers persuaded the state Legislature to draw a quarantine line down central Kansas, thus keeping Texas longhorns out of the eastern part of the state.

Over time, the quarantine line was pushed further and further west. Eventually, a new trail – the Great Western Cattle Trail – branched off from the Chisholm trail, along which Texas cattle were driven to the then-closest shipping point – Dodge City.

The city became a boom town with thousands of cattle passing through its stockyards annually. With an explosion of population and commercial activity came the inevitable bad elements that always accompanied Western expansion – saloons, gambling halls, brothels and gun fighters.

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Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Image: Google Images

Dodge City had more than its share of all four, becoming, over time, the pure definition of the Wild West.

Dodge was synonymous with some of the biggest names in Western lore – Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the Masterson brothers, to name just a few.

But times change.

Civilization crept into Dodge with the arrival of both ‘respectable’ women and Eastern farmers eager to homestead in Western Kansas.  Once again pressure was put on the Kansas State Legislature to finally do something about the spread of Tick Fever – and the Legislature responded.

In 1885 the entire state was quarantined, and the Western Trail was all but shut down. Cowboys, bars, gambling dens and prostitutes moved on, and Dodge City lapsed into a sleepy little town much like other communities in western Kansas.

But wait!

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Image: goodart.com

The cattle ranches were still there, and the memories – mostly shaped by Hollywood – of the heroic romanticism of the American Cowboy were still very much alive.

And so, when the radio series Gunsmoke first aired in 1952, it was set in Dodge City, Kansas.

The original writer and director, John Meston and Norman Macdonnel, wanted to create a Western drama series for adults as a counterpoint to the kiddie Westerns like The Cisco Kid and The Lone Ranger.

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Image: Google Images

The television version debuted in 1955 starring James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon. The series continued for 20 consecutive seasons, 1955 to 1975, and is still today America’s longest-running, prime time, live-action drama with 635 episodes.

And thanks to cable TV, it appears the opportunity to watch Gunsmoke will never end.

Now back to the cows.

During the 1960s the nation’s meatpacking industry began moving closer to the source of their supply, out of big cities and into right-to-work states like Kansas. Dodge City became the home to two meatpacking giants in the 1980’s, Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation, and National Beef Packing Co.

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Image: livestocktracker.com

The move made a lot of sense, as locals had long recognized a simple fact – the smell of manure is the smell of money.

Located at the edge of town, both companies are among the highest volume beef processing facilities in the country and are the major non-service sector employers in the area.

And, as a side note, the population of Dodge City is 60% Hispanic, perhaps reflecting the fact that these jobs are difficult, sometimes dangerous and definitely smelly.

It’s a natural fit. Huge cattle finishing lots dot the prairie, sometimes stretching for miles, all producing raw material for the nearby slaughterhouses.

Today’s downtown Dodge City presents a rather blah face to the traveler, but the Kansas State Historical Society has done a fantastic job with their Boot Hill Museum.

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The Museum is a recreation of historic Front Street as is looked in the 1880s. The buildings were all constructed as accurately as possible, utilizing old photographs and written records. Inside – stretching the entire length of the street – is a wonderful museum full of information, old photos, and artifacts illustrating the town’s early history.

img_1123-2Various events are held here through the year, including gunfights and other tourist-type activities.

Fittingly, Dodge City was the site of the 60th anniversary of the debut of Gunsmoke. People from all the country poured into town for showings of selected episodes, music, panel discussions (yes), and meet-and-greets with actors appearing in the series during its later years.

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Nicely restored, the old depot and Harvey House looks very similar today.

Doge City is also the home of another emblem of Western days gone by – the Vaquero, a Fred Harvey House Restaurant which once occupied a portion of the Santa Fe station. This lovely old building has been restored and refitted into a community theater, event center, and reminder of the vital importance of the Santa Fe Railroad in the history of Dodge City.

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Posted in: Travel - Kansas