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The Meanest Towns in the West

The following is an article from the book History's Lists from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader.

From the archives of the Old West, we've culled a list of the most notorious places on the frontier. Here's our countdown of the baddest of the bad, meanest of the mean, Wild West towns. Some historians say that the Wild West wasn't as dangerous as we've been led to believe by Hollywood, but there's no doubt that some frontier towns were beyond the immediate reach of the law -places where mischief, mayhem, and murder were everyday occurrences.

8. FORT GRIFFIN, TEXAS One of the wildest places in the old West, Fort Griffin sprouted at the intersection of the West Fork of the Trinity River and the Clear Fork of the Brazos River in northern Texas. Built in the 1860s on a hill overlooking the Brazos, the fort itself was designed to protect the folks -mostly farmers and ranchers- who lived below in the settlement of Fort Griffin. The town was soon invaded by outlaws and cowboys driving their cattle north to Dodge City. By the 1870s, skirmishes with the Kiowa and Comanche in the north diverted the soldiers from Fort Griffin and, as a result, law enforcement broke down, which attracted even more rough types to the town.

Visiting Celebrities. The motley collection of buffalo hunters, gamblers, gunfighters, and "painted ladies" brought with them a penchant for violence. Among them were a gambler and prostitute named Big Nose Kate and her pal, the legendary gambler Doc Holliday. Also passing through were Wyatt Earp (who met Holliday for the first time at the fort), lawman Pat Garrett, and John Wesley Hardin -by some accounts the most sadistic killer to ever come out of Texas. Dustups and gun violence became so frequent that the commander of the fort finally placed the town under martial law in 1874.

7. RUBY, ARIZONA From the days of the Spanish explorations prospectors had searched for veins of gold, silver, copper, lead, and zinc near Montana Peak in southern Arizona close to the Mexican border. In 1891, high-grade gold was discovered. A local assayer judged it to be a bonanza, and the rush was on. The town of Ruby was born practically overnight.

Here Comes Trouble. Most of the miners lived in tents or rough adobe huts, and bought their meager supplies at George Cheney's Ruby Mercantile, the one and only general store. The men provided for themselves and their families by hunting and rustling cattle. But the primary source of trouble came from Mexican bandits who frequently terrorized the settlement. By the early 1900s, Ruby was so dangerous that Philip and Gypsy Clarke, who owned a general store, kept weapons in every room of their house as well as the general store. When Philip eventually sold the store to a pair of brothers, he warned them of the danger. They didn't heed Clarke's warning and were soon found shot to death. Today, Ruby is a well-preserved ghost town.

6. DELAMAR, NEVADA Delamar got its reputation as a notorious Wild West town not from gun violence but from dangerous conditions in the mines. The 1889 discovery of gold in nearby Monkey Wrench Gulch unleashed a stampede of miners intent on digging for the peculiar form of gold, encased as it was in crystallized quartz. A former ship's captain named Joseph Raphael De Lamar bought most of the profitable mines in 1893 and built a mill to crack the quartz and refine the gold. Within a few years, the town had 1,500 citizens, a hospital, post office, opera house, school, several churches, and plenty of saloons. But then the deaths began to mount.

Dust to Dust. Operations at the mill exposed the miners -and the town- to clouds of silicon dust. The mill workers were at the greatest risk of breathing in the dust, which slowly caused silicosis of the lungs and death. At one time, 400 widows lived in Delamar, giving the town its reputation as the "Widowmaker." Delamar began its decline in 1909 when Captain De Lamar tore down the mill. Operation started up in the mines two decades later, but eventually slowed to a halt. The last resident moved away in 1934.

5. DODGE CITY, KANSAS

Bat Masterson Fights and gunplay were all too familiar in Dodge City in the 1870s. In its first ten years, it became a well-known gathering hole for gunslingers -so well known that companies such as the Atchinson, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad came to Dodge to hire fighting men when they needed to protect their business interests. Fearless buffalo hunters, cowboys, muleteers, and bullwhackers (wagon train drivers) populated the city. Characters with colorful nicknames arrived, among them Cherokee Bill, Prairie Dog Dave, Fat Jack, and Cockeyed Frank. Said one resident, "With a few drinks of red liquor under their belts, you could reckon there was something doing. They feared neither God, man, nor the devil, and so reckless they would pit themselves, like Ajax, against lightning, if they ran into it."

The Upside to the Downside. There were plenty of deaths and gunfights in the streets of "Wicked Dodge," as writers termed it, but it could have been worse. Because so many inhabitants were known as "sluggers, bruisers, and dead shots," most of them were wary of starting trouble with one another. Also happening on the scene were legendary lawmen such as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Charlie Bassett, and Bill Tilghman, who stood ready to step in and jail anyone who got out of hand.

4. ELDORADO CANYON, NEVADA Spanish explorers in the 18th century gave Eldorado Canyon its name, but it was American gold miners a century later who gave the mining camp at the canyon its reputation. The miners were drawn to a gorge on the Colorado River after prospectors discovered a vertical vein of gold there in 1861. The established the Techatticup Mine, which eventually fell into the hands of California senator George Hearst (father of publisher William Randolph Hearst). Eventually, dozens of mines in Eldorado Canyon became a magnet for prospectors, entrepreneurs, Civil War deserters, and "sporting women." Their only connection to the outside world was a steamboat that carried the gold, silver, copper, and lead down the Colorado River to distant Yuma, Arizona.

The Original Fight Club. Political clashes among supporters of the North or South in the Civil War and greed, vigilante justice, and disputes over claims made for frequent brawls, stabbings, and gunfights. Killings became so common they were nearly a daily event. And the canyon was so remote -300 miles from the closest civilized town- that lawmen simply refused to enter it. A military post was eventually established near the settlement in 1867 to protect the steamboats and bring a sense of civility to the neighborhood.

3. DEADWOOD, SOUTH DAKOTA

Like many other famous Wild West towns, Deadwood owes its reputation for violence to the discovery of gold. In 1874, U.S. Army general George A Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills to confirm the existence of gold. The U.S. government tried to keep the gold a secret in honor of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which recognized the Black Hills as belonging to the Lakota-Sioux. But in1875, when a miner found gold in a narrow canyon lined with dead trees, the news of the find in "Deadwood Gulch" spread like wildfire. Within a year, miners stormed into the area and established the rough-and-tumble mining camp of Deadwood.

Deadwood Comes to Life. The Black Hills gold rush was in full bloom by 1876. Deadwood swarmed with men determined to get rich by any means. Dozens of saloons, gambling parlors, and brothels competed for their attention and dollars. Legendary characters Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane were town fixtures. But danger lurked everywhere. Henry W. Smith, a Methodist minister, was murdered while walking to church, and Hickok was shot in the back of the head while playing poker in one of the saloons. By 1879, the rowdy nature of Deadwood began to ebb after a town government was established. Today, the well-preserved city is a gambling destination for tourists as well as a National Historic Landmark.

2. TOMBSTONE, ARIZONA

Many consider Tombstone the most dangerous of all the Wild West towns because of its lawlessness and frequent gunfights. The named seemed appropriate enough, but it wasn't derived from the Boothill graveyard outside town -it came from a nearby mine named by prospector Ed Schieffelin, who filed the claim in 1877. He was told by a soldier that warring Apaches controlled the area. "All you'll find in those hills is your tombstone," said the soldier. But Schieffelin was undeterred and named his mine the Tombstone. News of the strike brought other miners to the site, and the town of Tombstone soon came into being.

Lovely Downtown Tombstone. Consisting of 40 buildings, a post office, and 500 residents by 1878, Tombstone began to draw the usual collection of men and women from the fringes of society.  Within a few years, the town boasted more gambling parlors and saloons than anywhere in the Southwest, as well as the largest red light district. Wyatt Earp arrived at the end of 1879 with the intentions of establishing a stage line but instead invested in a gaming parlor while riding shotgun for Wells Fargo stagecoaches. Four of his brothers followed: James opened a saloon, and Warren, Virgil, and Morgan went into law enforcement. Wyatt's friend Doc Holliday arrived in 1880 with Big Nose Kate, who established a brothel in a tent. The Clanton gang and the McLowrey brothers terrorized the countryside, running afoul of the Earps, which led to the showdown at the town's O.K. Corral, thus sealing Tombstone's legend. The city has survived into the 21s century, as has its newspaper, the Tombstone Epitaph, which memorialized Tombstone as "The Town Too Tough to Die."

1. CANYON DIABLO, ARIZONA Nowhere in the Southwest was there a more violent place than the railroad town of Canyon Diablo, giving it the top spot on our list of the meanest Wild West towns. The settlement was born when workers laying tracks for a railroad came to the edge of the canyon, with no way to cross over until a bridge was built. Constructing the bridge took ten years, during which time the town that came into being took its name from the canyon. It was as despicable a place to live as there was in the West. With the closest U.S. marshal 100 miles away, Canyon Diablo quickly attracted drifters, gamblers, and outlaws. Fourteen saloons, ten gambling parlors, four brothels, two dance halls, a couple of cafes, a grocery, and a dry good store did business 24 hours a day. The buildings faced each other across the aptly-named Hell Street, the town's single rocky road just off the railroad right-of-way.

They Shot the Sheriff. Fights and gun duels were frequent among the town's 2,000 residents, filling dozens of graves at the town's cemetery. Bandits regularly held up the stage that ran between Flagstaff and Canyon Diablo. When mounting violence persuaded the townspeople to hire a police officer, the first one put on his badge at three o'clock in the afternoon and was dead by eight o'clock that evening. Five more who tried it lasted a month or less before being slain. But what the law couldn't do, the completion of the bridge accomplished. The town died, and according to Western lore, completely disappeared by 1899 when its last resident, a trading post owner named Herman Wolfe, died peacefully.

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The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader History's Lists. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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I nominate a zero... a western town meaner than #1 Diablo Canyon. A town so out of control that any law enforcement is killed in hours, if not days.

It is modern day Ciudad Juárez, across the river from El Paso, Texas. There have been over 1000 murders in 2011 alone, and we still have 6 weeks left in 2011. There were over 1200 murders in 2010. There are mass murders, thousands of kidnappings. Any lawman that is not on the payroll of the crime gangs is killed instantly.
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