From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, the western half of today’s United States was the site of many struggles waged over territory, gold, and more. People came from all over the world in hopes of claiming a piece of the uncharted territory that was the American Old West.
From the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 through 1912, the American Old West – the new frontier – saw the heinous removal of Indians, a gold rush that drew countless fortune-seekers, and the development of the railroads that would power the country.
Today, many of the places that were important to the American Old West are preserved as historic landmarks. But others are modern cities that you might never know were once part of the history of the Old West. For any history buff, a tour of the American West is a must. Here are some of the most historic towns and cities in the western United States today.
Referred to as “The West’s Most Famous Town” and “The Town too Tough to Die,” Tombstone, Arizona was founded in 1877 by a prospector named Ed Shieffelin who ended up finding silver in the area. He named his first mine “The Tombstone.” The appeal of silver drew in many prospectors and business people and by 1879, a town site was laid out. The town’s population reached upwards of 20,000 people within its first decade.
With an increase in population came crime, sometimes in the form of dangerous cowboys coming through town. This made Tombstone also one of the top spots for shootouts, which happened in now-historic venues like the OK Corral and the Bird Cage Theater, both open to the public today. Visitors can walk Tombstone’s famous Allen Street, tour the silver mines, and check out another piece of history at the Boothill Graveyard, named after its many occupants who died with their boots on. The graveyard is home to legendary rebels and cowboys with unique epitaphs on their headstones, like Les Moore’s “Here lies Lester Moore, Four Slugs from a 44 No Les No More.”
In all, an estimated $37,000,000 worth of ore was taken from the mines in the Tombstone area before population started dropping off in the early 1900s. Today, about 1,500 residents who call Tombstone home.
Dodge City, Kansas
Dodge City had a reputation as the wickedest town in the American Old West, frequented by some of the roughest, toughest cowboys and outlaws of the time. The town began as a fort in 1865 when a group of pioneers hunkered down here to defend themselves from frequent attacks by Indians. The area grew because of its proximity to the Santa Fe Trail, a route heavily trafficked by wagon trains. After the first business opened in 1872, development and planning for the town began.
Dodge City was at its peak in the early to mid-1880s when it became known as “Queen of the Cow Towns” for its robust role in the cattle trade industry. The Great Western Cattle Trail went straight to Dodge City, making the place prosperous for a time. But as the town grew in population, crime increased. There was no local law enforcement, so gunfights and shootouts were common, especially in the 17 saloons. The Long Branch Saloon was the most famous, and it’s one travelers can still visit today.
A fire in 1885 burned most of the storefronts, and the town began to clear out. By 1886, Dodge City was a shell of itself and no longer the wicked, Wild West town it had been for so many years. Today, visitors can check out the Boot Hill Museum or have a drink in one of the old saloons. Even today, the town’s primary industry is meat packing and livestock raising, a tradition that goes way back to the town’s involvement in the cattle trade of the 1800s.
Astoria is the home of a fur trading post that was established in 1811. Called Fort George, this post in the Columbia River Basin became an important hub of the regional fur trade, but it was its role in the War of 1812 that makes it a historic landmark in the development of the American West.
Originally called Fort Astoria, after its founder, the Pacific Fur Company employees sold it to the British-owned North West Company, which renamed it Fort George. The Americans sold the fort because they knew they would end up losing it to the British anyway, but after the war they agreed on joint occupancy in the Convention of 1818. The 1846 Treaty of Oregon ended that arrangement, deeming Astoria officially American territory, a major development for the American West.
If you visit the site of the fort today, you’ll find a commemoration in a small city park, as most the fort sites lie under roadways and commercial and residential structures. But you can grab a few beers at the popular Fort George Brewery and Pub to commemorate your visit.
Today, Ogden is a popular tourist destination for skiing and other adventure sports. It’s even been named one of the safest cities in Utah, but it wasn’t always that way. The city of Ogden was a major player in the development of the Transcontinental Railroad, a 1,912-mile contiguous railroad constructed between 1863 and 1869. Both the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads were in a rush to get to Utah and engaged in heated territory battles before reaching an agreement. They met for negotiations west of Ogden at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869.
Just north of the city lies the Golden Spike National Historical Site that commemorates the completion of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads. The completion marked the beginning of the end of the American frontier.
Cripple Creek, Colorado
Most people think of California as the site of the major gold rushes of the American frontier, but there’s a little town at the base of Pike’s Peak in Colorado that produced more gold than California and Alaska combined.
Cripple Creek saw the last major gold rush of the American West when in 1890 Robert Miller “Bob” Womack discovered rich ore. At first a gold mining camp, it grew into a flourishing town. More prospectors moved in, and and one man named W.S. Stratton struck it rich. Stratton staked claim to a portion of land in the town to start a mine and named it Independence. There he tapped into one of the largest gold strikes in American history, the “Independence lode.” It made him the first millionaire of Cripple Creek.
Since the original discovery of gold back in 1890, there have been over 22 million troy ounces of gold mined from this town alone, earning it the title of “The World’s Greatest Gold Camp.”
In its prime, Cripple Creek boasted a population of over 35,000 and was home to millionaires and wealthy businessmen. After two major fires in 1896, the town’s population saw a drastic downturn and it became a “ghost town” until the early 1990s when the state legalized gambling. Today there are many casinos in Cripple Creek, but there are also some original saloons and structures dating back to 1896.
Visitors can take a gold mine tour from a real gold miner at the Mollie Kathleen Mine, get more information on the rich history of Cripple Creek at the Cripple Creek District Museum, and see the town from the tracks by taking a ride on the Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad.