More than 150 years ago these real life wild west towns were thriving centers of The American Dream. Even today these words are synonymous with the entrepreneurial heart and soul of hardcore Americana. Disenchanted Europeans were on a mission to claim a life free from the tyranny and the crown, and so they braved the dangerous travel conditions, earth shattering mountain peaks and starvation or even death at the hands of savages*.
As harsh as the wild west was, it remains one of America’s most romanticized periods of time. A time when the possibilities truly were boundless, and anyone with a brave soul could stand up and claim a piece of history for themselves. So saddle up cowboy so we can ride off into the sunset of America’s real life wild west towns.
1. Bannack, Montana
Gold and Grasshopper Creek
The history behind wild west towns like Bannack, Montana begins in 1862 when John White struck gold beneath the waters of Grasshopper Creek. News of the find spread rapidly and soon many fled there in hopes of striking it rich! As the town grew and became more populated, Henry Plumer, the leader of an outlaw gang, falsely wooed the city folks into electing him as Sherriff. During his period of election Bannack and Virginia City became dangerous places to live. Murders and robberies made it rough for the area to prosper. For a brief period in 1864, Bannack was named the first Territorial Capital of Montana.
Murderers and Thieves
For a short time in 1864, Bannack was appointed as the first Territorial Capital of Montana. Eventually, Virginia City became the capital. After years of mining, gold findings began to diminish, and the state of Montana decided that Bannack would become a State Park. Not only does Bannack State Park have stunning scenery and rich history, but holds numerous events and activities throughout the year.
Modern Day Family Park
During the summer months, you and your family would love to participate in Saturdays in the Park! Every summer Saturday a variety of events are held such as star-gazing, poetry sharing, and a lot of music playing. If you enjoy performing, you can contact the park to schedule an event for you that won’t cost you a nickel, although donations are sincerely appreciated! There is also gold panning at the river basin near Grasshopper Creek, the same area John White spotted gold 154 years ago.
As the warm season is coming to an end, many more attractions will be coming up, such as ice skating and ghost walks! And if you’re a fan of the paranormal, Zak, Nick, and Aaron from the television show Ghost Adventures visited Bannacks’ Hotel Meade and witnessed some unexplained phenomena. With the town’s history of outlaw gangs, murderers, and thieves, maybe you will see something worth questioning, too.
2. St Elmo, Colorado
The Wild, Wild West
Even today there are many real life wild west towns in the USA. Some of them, like St. Elmo Colorado have become modern ghosts towns. There is something very eery about all the emptiness of these old villages. The buildings are still standing as a testament to a time not forgotten in the pop culture history of Americana.
Founded in 1880 as Forest City, the town was soon changed its name to St. Elmo. Griffth Evans, one of the town’s founding fathers, chose the new name based on the book he was reading at the time. At its peak during the gold and silver rush of the wild west, the town had more than 2,000 inhabitants.
Dance Hall Days
Officially classified as a ghost town, there are indeed still people residing in St. Elmo. Several of the original buildings still stand today including the saloon, the general store, five hotels and the magnificent dance halls.
Historically, there were more than 150 gold and silver mines in St. Elmo. These mines attracted the Denver South Park and Pacific Railroad to run through the town. The most successful mine of its time was the Mary Murphey Mine which made hauls of over $60,000,000 in gold and silver. As the other mines in the area ran dry, the Mary Murphey Mine remained open until 1922 when it was left empty and abandoned by the last of the wild west miners.
St. Elmo’s 2002 Fire
Today, St. Elmo is a tourists location. The old mine roads are now 4×4 trails. St. Elmo’s Chalk Creek offers some excellent fishing. In 2002 the town hall and some of the other old wooden buildings burnt down in a fire, this lead to the rebuilding of parts of the old town by Buena Vista Heritage.
So head on out to the general store, rent a jeep and grab a fishing pole. And truth be told, who knows, there may still be gold in them there hills.
3. Deadwood, South Dakota
Outlaws and Gamblers
Outlaws, gambling, and land disputes were a natural way of life in the wild frontier. Deadwood, South Dakota began as a hot spot for outlaws like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. In fact, Deadwood began as an illegal settlement on land owned by the Lakota People.
In 1874 Colonel Custer went on his expedition into the Black Hills and made the claim of finding gold at French Creek. The gold claim only added to the lawlessness of the dangerous wild west town of Deadwood.
Bella Union Saloon
Deadwood was known for its free-flowing liquor and loose women. Prostitution was all the rage, the town itself was home to many brothels and saloons. The Bella Union Saloon and Gem Variety Theatre have been the subject of many Hollywood stories. Their connection to the opium trade and utter debauchery of the wild west make them a fantastic setting for romanticizing the violence of the era.
Deadwood is not Dead
Deadwood still stands today, in 2010 the population was less than 1,500. It remains a small town, entrenched in the history of the United States. Nowadays it is a tourist destination, filled with legalized gambling. In 1989 gambling was legalized in an attempt to maintain the town’s historical authenticity. Hollywood film legend Kevin Costner owns the Midnight Star Casino in Deadwood.
Deadwood is a thriving community, no longer lawless yet still filled with the air of lawless outlaws. Historic Deadwood offers year round vacation possibilities for you to fulfill your dreams of gambling in the saloon amidst dancing girls and player pianos. Take a walking tour, see Wild Bill’s grave or just go fishing. Deadwood South Dakota has it all, and it never lost its frontier charm.
4. Tombstone, Arizona
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
How in the world does a place get the name Tombstone? This old west boomtown was one of the most prosperous in the USA. Most famous for a 30-second shootout between the Earp Brothers and a gang of outlaws known as the Cowboys, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
The Earp brothers were the town’s lawmen, and they were no fans of the Cowboys. At 3 pm on Wednesday 26th of October in 1881, the single most famous shoot-out in American history happened, ultimately killing two of the Cowboy Outlaws. It wasn’t until after Wyatt Earp passed away that the shoot-out became forever cemented into American Pop Culture Legend. Author Stuart Lake published the biography: Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall and the rest, as they say, is history.
Tough Nut Mine and Boothill Graveyard
As with most frontier towns, Tombstone was also a mining town. The most famous of the mines was the Tough Nut Mine. The mine was rich in horn silver and processed two of the biggest strikes by the Tombstone Gold and Silver Mining Company.
The wild west is almost a synonym for toughness. We see that reflected in the way history describes the people of the time. Even the graveyards were rough and tough places. Boothill Graveyard in Tombstone got its name because those who died with their boots on finding eternal rest on this dusty old hill.
Tombstone Restoration Community
Nowadays Tombstone is nothing more than a tourist attraction. With historical reenactments a few times a year, and saloon ladies dancing on Allen Street you can’t help but feel like you have traveled back in time.
The town’s historic district is a National Historic Landmark District, yet somehow the towns focus on tourism threatens this status. The National Park Service is now working together with the Tombstone Restoration Community to maintain the town’s protected status. It would indeed be a shame for Tombstone Arizona to become yet another pair of boots eternally resting in Boothill Graveyard.
America’s Wild West Towns have been the source for some amazing stories. The influence on Hollywood has not gone unnoticed, even today we find cultural gems like this YouTube video just waiting to fuel the fires of our imagination.
( *Writers note: the use of the word savages in no way represents The Complete City Guides perspective on American Native Tribes. Indeed it is a reflection of the misinformation of the frontier pioneers of the time.)