Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Toughest Town In The Old West

Here is a small story about my favorite ghost town. It's my favorite simply because of what took place there.

Today its called Palisade, but some say that originally the little town sitting in the rugged high desert Nevada landscape was called Palisades.

Today, what's left is actually just the few remnants of a ghost town. There are a few shacks. And of course, there is a foundation or two here and there of buildings which only time knows what they were. 

And as with most ghost towns, like most places that were settled so long ago and then forgotten, there is a graveyard there.

The gravestones there dot the earth to signify that once upon a time people lived and died there. The sun and wind and moon are their only mourners. Yes indeed, there isn't a lot left of the old Palisade these days.

Fact is, you probably have never heard of the town of Palisade that sits about 10 miles south of Carlin, and about 27 miles Southwest of Elko. It is just a speck in the landscape today. It's surely not as big and well preserved as Bodie or other famous ghost towns. 

But that's not the way things have always been. Fact is that back in its heyday, it had a very interesting history to say the least.  It's history had everything to do with mining and the Transcontinental Railroad, and of course violence and excitement as no other town in the West. 

Yes, believe it or not, Palisades was the most violent town in the West. It had killings, gunfights in the streets, bank robberies, Indian attacks, the Army coming to the rescue, trains robberies, newspapers calling for action to help a town besieged by all of the above. These things were such a daily occurrence that the murder rate was a hundred times more than what places like Dodge City, Tombstone, and other supposed violent boom towns.

When most think of an Old West town, they think of Saloons, horses tied out front, soiled doves ready and willing to apply the world's oldest profession to any and all, and of course shootouts. Yes, that was Palisade. It had all of the shoot'em-ups that one read in popular Dime Novels.

I kid you not, Palisade had it all. There were gunfights in the streets, bank robberies, Indian attacks, and yes, even the U.S. Cavalry got a chance to save the day there at least twice a month. It was the real Wild West that people all over the world have heard of and read about. And did I say that Palisade, Nevada, had gunfights, it had a lot of gunfights.

In fact, I'm willing to say that Palisade, Nevada, had more gunfights than Wichita, Abilene, Dodge City, Deadwood, and Tombstone combined. Yes, all combined. The town was a ruckus, hell-raising, shoot'em-up, no mercy town, bent on destruction through booze, bullets and the devil!

Wow! Does that sound exciting or what!

There is one small problem though, none of it was real! It was all a fake! Yes, fake! And friends, if Palisade had the murder rate that was reported, then it would certainly have had a boot hill the size of two football fields. But it didn't because it was all faked.

That's right! In the late 1870s, believe it or not, to some in the Old West, the Wild and Woolly West was seen as winding down. All of the things that I've just mentioned going on in Palisades was more a part of fiction than reality in the West. But no, that didn't stop fiction writers, Dime Novelist, and Newspapers, from making sure that that's what people thought was taking place out West.

For many folks, they felt that it was a shame that it was ending. Some folks, even back then, saw the West as being settled too quickly. And yes, there were some folks that didn't want to see it go away. Some wanted to do their best to keep the ruckus, hell-raising, shoot'em up, no mercy town, bent on destruction through booze, bullets and the devil, alive and well.

Well, at least for the tourists!
Palisade, Nevada, c. 1870s
Many of us, if not all of us, have either known or heard stories about people holding on to the past. Well my friends, these folks in Palisade took it to a whole new level. For them, one option of keeping the West Wild and Woolly was to have gunfights and such -- scheduled for folks coming through town.

But, then again, that would mean that someone might get hurt! And being honest, that whole thing about shootouts and such was never like the books said anyways. Most folks carried guns to prevent from being shot, not to shoot someone. 

And also, we have to remember that those were the days before antibiotics, so that "flesh wound" that so many books and movies talked about was really not a good thing at all. In reality, that supposed "flesh wound" would probably kill you just as good as being shot under the arm pit.

I know someone out there right now is saying, "Arm pit?!" Well, that's just an obscure reference to the shot fired by Wild Bill Hickok that supposedly hit Dave Tutt directly in the heart. It actually hit Dave Tutt just beneath his right arm pit! I threw it in because I know that facts like that annoy the heck out of Hickok fans who say Tutt was shot in the heart!

But back to our story about Palisade Nevada ...

Then it happened, a few very enterprising individuals in town decided that Palisade Nevada would keep the Wild and Woolly West alive and kicking. That is, at least far as long as they could get away with it.

How? Well, a few people decided to stage fake gunfights for unsuspecting train passengers passing through Palisade on the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads from the East. The railroads pulled in regularly, on time mostly, and that's when the fun started.

The idea got started when a train conductor suggested that the citizens of Palisade might want to do something special for the "Dudes," also known as "City Folks" or "City Slickers" from back East. A "Dude" back in the days of the Old West was not a very polite term to call someone out West. But back then, Easterners were not known for being very savvy about common sense things. And besides, many Dudes dressed like "Dandies" by Western standards. Yes, that includes the famous Bat Masterson who dressed in sack-suits and such.  He was considered a "dandy dresser."

As for who started the idea of putting on fake shootouts? We can blame it on the suggestion of the train conductor. Supposedly the train conductor put it this way, "as long as so many Easterner Dandies were traveling West hoping to see the Wild West, well, why not give it to them?"

The townsfolk of Palisade took the idea to heart, and boy did they run with it! Just a week later a few men in town staged the first gunfight in the entire history of Palisade.

The good guy was played by Frank West, who was a tall dark and handsome cowhand from a nearby ranch. He was a well read man who jumped at the chance to join in on the fun. And for fun, the bad guy was played by Alvin Kittleby, who in reality was a very popular deeply religious Christian man who happened to look like the villains depicted in the Dime Novels.
The majority of the town was in on it. People waited, and then they heard the train whistle announcing its approach into town. Then just before noon when the train pulled into town for a 10 minute water stop, and the passenger car was in full view, it started.

Alvin Kittleby slowly started walking down the middle of Main Street toward the town saloon.  Both hands hovering over a set of Colts in a holster slung low on his hip. That was when Frank West, who was awaiting his que standing in a corral about 80 feet away, then stepped out into the street and the drama started.

Frank West shouted at the top of his lungs in the most exaggerated Western slang imaginable, "There ya're, ya low down polecat! Ah bin a wait'n fer ya! And yup, ah'ma go'n ta keel ya cause a wat ya deed ta mah sister. Mah poo, poo lil sister!"

Yes, they took their lines straight out of Dime Novels which depicted folks in the West as illiterate buffoons and idiots who couldn't speak clear or concise. To help translate what they really said in regular Western speech, they said:

"There you are, you low down polecat! I've been waiting for you! And yes, I'm going to kill you because of what you did to my sister. My poor, poor little sister!"

Then Frank West drew his revolver and fired it. The round was well over Alvin Kittleby's head. But that was when Kittleby grabbed his chest and fell to the ground kicking and screaming in pain as if he were really shot. It was Drama 101!
The train passengers witnessing the gunfight dove for cover, and yes, it's said that several of the woman passengers fainted. In fact, it's said that some of the men passengers did as well. Dudes being Dudes, it's not too hard to understand why!

Then a few minutes later, when the engine had all of its wood and water, the train slowly pulled out of the Palisade station. Nearly every passenger, still worried about getting shot, crouched on the floor of the passenger car until it was "a safe distance" away.

My friends, as much as I can find out, that was probably the First Faked Gunfight in the Old West. But the story doesn't end there, because it wasn't the last faked gunfight in the Old West. Those dudes would do as most all do today after visiting Disneyland, they'd tell their friends about it.

So over the next 3 years, the people of Palisade all got in on it! In fact, it's estimated that more than 1,000 gunfights took place. And yes, there were even some twice or more in a single day. It might have had something to do with the railroad schedule - who knows!

To keep things interesting for the townsfolk, and to keep the train passengers fooled, the town organized and would change the theme of the gunfights. At times they added in a duel or two, and even had Indian raids with the cooperation of local Indians -- who I'm sure enjoyed the joke just as well as the next person.

Fact is that local Shoshone Indians did for fact ride in on horseback to act out "massacres" of innocent women and children before being shot at and then driven off by avenging townsfolk -- or the appearance of the U.S. Cavalry. And yes, if you're wondering, the Indians and the Cavalry weren't the only ones in on it!

Bank robberies were staged involving sometimes over a dozen robbers on horseback, and a posse would chase the bank robbers out of town - of course, shooting up the town in the process. And please, don't think for a minute that this was just a few folks involved in this. This was the whole town. Yes, the entire town did their part.

Those townsfolk who weren't directly involved with actually being a participant in the gun battles, bank robberies, Indian attacks, and what have you, they helped out manufacturing blanks for the pistols and rifles by the thousands. But their job didn't stop there, they were to ones tasked with collecting the beef blood from the local slaughter house for the fake wounds and such. It's said that nearly everyone in a 100 mile radius was in on the joke -- but that's just speculation.

So who was in on it? Well, by all accounts, the railroad conductors and engineers made sure they hit the train whistle ahead of time so that everyone could get into position. So it's for certain they were in on it. And yes, just about everyone was in on it, including the local townsfolk, the Indians, the U.S. Cavalry, and probably others.

But just imagine that for a moment!

All of those people knowing what is really happening, and yet somehow or another they all kept the secret of what was going on in Palisade completely quiet. And yes, during those 3 years that Palisade was doing what they did, Eastern passengers all believed that they nearly caught a bullet, or barely made it out of town alive. And yes, all who witnessed it thought it was the real thing -- just like what they read in all the books and newspapers!

The passengers all survived to tell their children about being in what the newspapers of the time supposedly dubbed as "The Toughest Town In The West."

Of course there are a few ironies to what took place. First, there was the National outrage! No kidding, there really was a national concern over what was going on out there in Nevada.

Why? Well, one group of passengers, who supposedly witnessed the gun play, were supposedly from a newspaper group who ran articles in their affiliate papers in San Francisco, Chicago, and even New York. Yes, they wrote about the horrors that they saw first hand. The articles caught on like wildfire. Soon, before you could say the word indignation, the claims took hold and the government was being pressured to settle the violence in Palisade. 

Fact is, that during that time period, a lot of newspapers regularly reported what they believed were horrible gun battles, murders, robberies, and Indian massacres, taking place all over the West -- especial way out in what was referred to back them as the Far West. Palisades became known as the worse or the worse.

For Palisade, well the town was Front Page News!

The Location of Ghost Town of Palisade, Nevada
Editorials started popping up denouncing "the senseless waste of human life." Many called for the U.S. Army to take action in Palisade, send in the Cavalry to rescue those helpless people and restore order there. There were even calls to have federal troops "occupy" the town, but of course those writing the editorials had no idea that the U.S. Army was actually in on the joke.

So all in all, even though the outcry was loud, nothing was done because there was nothing to do! Over time, Palisade Nevada gained one heck of a reputation for being one rough, tough, take no prisoners sort of town. Some say that the newspapers were correct in calling Palisade "The Toughest Town in the West."

Of course the reputation was built on the townspeople having fun with what other imagined they were like. They played on the ignorances of others and made a few dollars doing it. Yes, they played it to the hilt. But all in all, the people of Palisade did deserve their reputation. Heck, they worked harder than any other town to get it!

The difference between Palisade Nevada and the shoot'em-up cow towns of Wichita, Abilene, and Dodge City, was that Palisade was acting out what Easterners thought those other towns were like -- but in reality weren't.
And that's the other bit of irony, which I find fun to think about. In 1870, while the good folks of Palisade were having fun shooting up their town and playing a great joke on unsuspecting Easterners coming West, all who believed everything they read in fiction magazines and newspapers, the town of Palisade was so safe and quiet that it didn't even need a Sheriff or a jail.

Yep, that's the truth!

Tom Correa


  1. I have a photo album from my grandmother where she had a picture taken there of her half sister there in 1908, which indicated that the plural was operative. Of course she wasn't the best speller and entered it as "Palasadise", but that does indicate that it was known in the plural at least there in 1908.

  2. Interesting that you would talk about an armpit shot. When I worked for a law enforcement agency, my Sgt got in a gunfight with a man who was set on getting even with a married woman that he loved, and her husband. It was at a mediation meeting, attended by several people. The offended lover opened fire in the crowded room and hit a lawyer and my Sgt. The Sgt began returning fire, but couldn't see as he'd been hit in the nose, filling his eyes with blood. He fired 5 hots, and the last one went through the attackers armpit and into his heart, killing him. Ah, old memories. And this story that you told is another great one.

  3. I really enjoy reading your "Wild West" stories. Keep 'em coming!


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